What it takes to get anything done in Cuba, from a guy who just brought a big American pop act to the island

Tough work.
Tough work.
Image: AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa
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Cuba has not been this welcoming since the Cuban Revolution began in July, 1953. President Barack Obama this week completed the first visit to the country by a US president since 1928. American airlines are restoring direct flights, and multi-nationals such as Starwood Hotels are setting up shop. On Friday (March 25), the Rolling Stones are holding a free concert in Havana.

Yet doing business on the island remains an odyssey, says Fabien Pisani, who earlier this month (March 6) produced a show by Major Lazer there. Pisani, a filmmaker who lives in Havana and Brooklyn, founded Musicabana, a non-profit foundation that organized the concert by the electronic-music group in collaboration with the Cuban government. Nearly half a million Cubans swayed to its funky beats in what Pisani describes as a goose-bump-inducing experience.

In putting together that event, as well as a four-day music festival in May, Pisani learned lessons likely to help others trying to do business for the first time in Cuba.

Here are his tips:

Don’t expect it to be easy

Accomplishing anything in Cuba, from finding a hotel to opening a business, requires perseverance, never mind orchestrating a logistics-heavy international music festival. For that, he tells Quartz, “you have to be totally insane.”

The country’s relative isolation from the rest of the world makes it hard to procure what are run-of-the-mill items elsewhere, such as walkie-talkies. Communications are tough, with international calls bound to drop. Internet access is spotty.

Cuba is also opening up faster than its bureaucracy can keep pace. “The mechanisms to do this have not yet been created,” says Pisani, referring to his music ventures. “It’s like reinventing the wheel each time you want to do something.

Rapidly changing trade rules also make doing business tricky. At one point, making a profit from a music show was forbidden. It is now possible due to legal changes by the Obama administration. Musicabana is charging about $300 for VIP tickets to its festival. Cubans will be able to get in for free, but won’t have access to perks such as lounges and front-row seats.

“Everybody is skeptical with Cuba,” says Pisani. “There are many things that can be done. The US State Department is saying to be bold and engaged.”

Be humble

Doing business in Cuba requires government buy-in. To get it, it’s useful to have connections. Pisani, who grew up in Cuba in a family of famous musicians, enlisted local production company PM Records to represent Musicabana in its dealings with the government. His nine years of music school in Cuba helped make his case, and so did the fact that he had already produced a film set in Havana (7 Days in Havana.)

But respect is also key. “It’s a matter of accepting you’re never in control and playing along without getting arrogant,”  he says, even when it can take months to achieve simple things, like getting a green light to put an artist in the line-up.

Be prepared for nail-biting episodes

A few days before the Major Lazer concert, Musicabana’s local walkie-talkie supplier cancelled its order because it didn’t have machines that worked. With nowhere on the island to easily get replacements, organizers frantically sent to the US for new ones. But Musicabana needed a special permit. It couldn’t apply for it directly, so it had to get its local partner, the Cuban Institute of Music, to make the request to the Ministry of Communications. The process then had to be repeated due to paperwork mistakes. In the end, the walkie-talkies arrived the day of the concert, says Pisani.

Manage expectations

While Pisani is used to “Planet Cuba,” as he calls it, many of the people he works with were not. A big part of his job was initiating them.

Forget about mapping apps or constant updating on social media. Connectivity, when it is available, tends to be lousy.

While bands are used to getting everything they ask for, from the gear they prefer to their favorite drink, in Cuba they had to adapt to what was locally available, he says.

Given the iffy economics of putting on a show in Cuba, artists agreed to work for expenses only. They won’t charge any fees.

The payoff: “We’re kind of making history,” says Pisani.