Business Leaders and Policy Experts Discuss Cuba’s Recent Economic Reforms and Implications for U.S.-Cuba Policy

Wednesday, 13 November 2013
CDA, the Elliott School of International Affairs and USA*Engage Host Conference on “Cubans in the New Economy, Their Reflections and the U.S. Response”

Washington, D.C. – Today, the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University and USA*Engage, an affiliate of the National Foreign Trade Council, hosted a conference, “Cubans in the New Economy, Their Reflections and the U.S. Response,” to examine what have been called the most far-reaching changes Cuba has made to its economic model in half a century.

The event featured remarks by U.S. Representative Kathy Castor (FL-14) and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Alex Lee. In addition, Cuban small business owners, or “cuentapropistas,” and U.S. experts provided insight on the changes taking place in Cuba’s economy and implications for U.S. policy going forward.

During a discussion on “Cuban Reflections,” Yamina Vicente, who started an event-planning firm called Decorazón in Cuba, spoke about how her business provided financial opportunity, served as a source of employment for others, encouraged creativity and “restored some lost hope.” Niuris Higueras Martínez, who founded the popular paladar, or private restaurant, Atelier, added that her business provided financial stability and strong personal and professional satisfaction. She stated, “When people leave [my restaurant] and say, ‘it was very very good,’ that makes me feel wonderful.”

Nidialys Acosta and Julio Álvarez, who founded Nostalgicar, a business that rents out classic 1950s Chevys on the island, outlined the opportunities and challenges they faced getting their business off the ground, from the lack of a wholesale market to acquire parts and the high costs of accessing the Internet to learning and fine-tuning their operations based on customer feedback.

Carlos Saladrigas, President of the Cuba Study Group, suggested several changes to U.S. policy that could help Cuban entrepreneurs during a discussion on “U.S. Policy Moving Forward,” including giving Cuban entrepreneurs access to the U.S. market, allowing U.S. businesses to hire Cubans directly and permitting exchanges between professionals in Cuba and America. “Ironically,” he said, the U.S. embargo “is delaying or preventing change in Cuba” by precluding access to “the most logical market for [Cuban entrepreneurs’] goods and services.”

Jake Colvin, a Vice President with the National Foreign Trade Council who chaired the discussion with Saladrigas, and Eric Leenson, CEO of Sol Economics, highlighted the opportunity that exists to be creative in supporting Cuba's emerging private sector, something that President Obama called for recently in Miami. “As one example, there is a unique opportunity to leverage digital platforms and Internet-enabled services to improve economic development and to engage entrepreneurs,” he said, highlighting how services from the likes of e-commerce platforms, financial and logistics services providers, and NGOs, such as Kiva.org and the Grameen Foundation, are supporting startups and providing essential services in other contexts.

Sarah Stephens, Executive Director of CDA, added, “We heard inspiring evidence from the women running small businesses that these changes are raising incomes, creating jobs, making the Cuban state more competitive and giving them opportunities to fulfill their ambitions. These are the kinds of changes that U.S. policy should be supporting.”

Additionally, during a discussion on “A history of the private sector in Cuba,” Phil Peters, President of Cuba Research Center, stated, “Cuba's entrepreneurs are at the center of an expanding private sector that is bringing new jobs, opportunities and income to Cuban citizens. President Obama would do well to change U.S. policies to support these entrepreneurs and to give Americans more freedom to do business with Cuba's opening economy.”

Other panelists included Dr. Margaret E. Crahan, Columbia University; Emilia Fernández, Human Resources Specialist; and Lisa Ndecky Llanos, CDA.

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USA*Engage (www.usaengage.org) is a coalition of small and large businesses, agriculture groups and trade associations working to seek alternatives to the proliferation of unilateral U.S. foreign policy sanctions and to promote the benefits of U.S. engagement abroad. Established in 1997 and organized under the National Foreign Trade Council (www.nftc.org), USA*Engage leads a campaign to inform policymakers, opinion leaders, and the public about the counterproductive nature of unilateral sanctions, the importance of exports and overseas investment for American competitiveness and jobs, and the role of American companies in promoting human rights and democracy worldwide.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization with programs that focus on Cuba, Venezuela, and issues affecting the region at-large. CDA, which has published research reports examining Cuba’s economic reforms and the impact of these transformations on gender equality, is hosting the visits of the speakers from Cuba.

The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs is one of the world’s leading schools of international affairs and the largest school of international affairs in the United States.