In a back lot just off the ever-bustling Regent Street, easily hidden by the clothing stores and snackette that dominate in the forefront, is A&A, a transportation and accommodation service that caters solely to Cuban visitors.
The business is owned by Guyanese-Venezuelan couple Antonio Fraser and Ana Maria Hopkinson-Fraser, who were both born in Venezuela to Guyanese parents, but returned years ago—Ana in 2009 and Antonio in 1994.
A&A was formed over three years ago, when Antonio saw potential in what would grow into a niche market, after being recruited by an acquaintance to do airport runs.
“We were staying in Seaforth Street, Kitty. I didn’t have a job, nothing, and I have a friend that started going to the airport and he asked for a job, that’s how it began,” he explained to Stabroek News.
From there, the business would branch out and blossom; first growing beyond mere offers of transportation services to including accommodation, and now, guided tours to a few places across the country.
Their business has mainly grown through referrals. The couple also has contacts in Cuba that link them with customers.
Although there is some demand, the business is not easy, the couple explained, neither does it reap a great profit.
“Sometimes a week we don’t get nothing. One week, five, sometimes we get 10, sometimes we get 20. You know—it all depends. It fluctuates sometimes,” Antonio related.
“When we start it was just five of us doing the business; now it’s about over 40 of us now,” his wife added.
They were forced to drop their rates because of the rise in competition, now offering accommodation at US$10 a night instead of US$15, like other places reportedly do. Ana related however, that other places also have surcharges for services such as using the kitchen.
At A&A, customers are charged US$3 per meal but the majority bring their own food and water, or use the kitchen to prepare their own.
Currently, there are two houses available for rent, the first, able to accommodate 11 persons, and the other able to house four.
“This is like their home; when they come here they feel like they’re in their home, like they can talk to you,” Antonio said.
“When they come to Guyana, my job is to take care of them, protect them…make sure they eat, make sure they’re comfortable, if they have to go to the store, change their money I go and see if they go they’re okay because I don’t make joke with them,” Antonio stated.
He related that there were instances where their customers were victims of robberies, and even one case where one was shot.
“They get beat up, they get rob…if they wanna go out, I take them out myself…and I have workers and I send my workers out with them to watch over them. Some speak Spanish, not fluently, but can understand.”
Once their rooms are filled, referrals are made to the apartment complex, Palace de Leon.
Based on reports of the ticket prices, the trade seems to be quite an expensive one, which raises questions of how the Cubans are able to afford it, considering complaints of the economic circumstances within their home country.
Antonio equates the situation to “prestamista,” a Spanish word that directly translates to “moneylender”. “Every time they go and buy and come back they always write down how the money spending to show whoever is lending them,” he related.
“They have like prestamista—people that lend money to them for a percentage. So that’s why they take this thing serious, because when they go back there they have to sell this clothes and they can’t give away nothing… and when these people come here, it’s like they come to you, you lend them (US) $3,000 and they come, spend, pay back your(US) $3,000 and whatever left is their own,” he said.
“We have a couple persons that come, spend…then the next 2 weeks they’re back again,” Antonio said of the Cubans’ movement between the two territories.
He said he has as many as 30 “personal customers” who come for periods of 3-5 days before returning to Cuba.
Their shopping list includes clothes, shoes, makeup, jewellery and handbags—with some items depending on seasonal demand—which are bought here and then sold again upon their return.
“Don’t think it is easy with us here, each dollar, US$1 count for them, US$.50 count for them…this job is not a big profit, it’s plenty work and little profit, but you learn a lot of things every day…” the man added.
Speaking on what appears to be a sudden surge of the Cubans’ presence in Guyana, they related that it may just be due to access.
“They had to get visa first to come to Guyana, now it’s open and it have a variety of stuff here in Guyana. They have other places open, which is Haiti, they had Trinidad but I guess Trinidad is closed for them now…” Ana related.
“They go to Russia still, they go to St Lucia— it’s just a few countries, but they say that Guyana have variety of stuff that’s the reason they keep on coming here.
Also Suriname, but they rather Guyana, that’s the reason why you see them always coming here and you’re always seeing a whole set of them because of the variety of stuff.”
Ana related that the majority of their customers are from the interior regions of Cuba, with many having not even ventured outside of their own villages before deciding to come to Guyana. But for them, the risk of travelling to an unknown territory is worth the opportunity to live better.
“Remember Cuba is a poor country and…they could manage them, tell them when they want them to come out, when they don’t want them to come out.
If I tell you the story of Cuba how I know it, you’d cry, you’d get sad because it’s not a country that they’re free or they could do what they feel like doing,” her husband explained.
“Can you work for US $10 a month?” Antonio posed. “That’s what they work for.”