U.S. business executives met with Cuban business people Monday during President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba in the conviction that they might be able to fix things between the two former adversaries even if government policy lags.
A series of entrepreneurial sessions was held at an old wood and tobacco warehouse that has been turned into a brewery/restaurant. The sessions, which brought together American business leaders, Cuban-American executives, Cuban entrepreneurs and representatives of both governments were capped by an appearance by Obama.
The president reiterated his call for the U.S. Congress to lift the embargo to sustained applause.
He acknowledged the changes in the Cuban economy from allowing Cubans to buy and sell homes, start their own businesses and have cell phones, but said more could be done.
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Businesses flourish, he said, when the business climate is right.
Among the changes the Cuban government could make to improve the business environment, he said, would be to unify the dual-currency system, set up a wholesale market, allow Cuban lawyers, engineers and other professionals to start their own businesses and give everyone a chance to succeed, including women and Afro-Cubans.
“Even if you don’t have much, a kitchen, a sewing machine, if you’re willing to work hard, you can make your own way,” he said.
He encouraged cuentapropistas (small business owners) to network with the American executives at the event.
Obama noted that Daymond John, of “Shark Tank” fame and president of FUBU, and other potential U.S. investors were in the audience. “Give them your best pitch. Maybe they will bite,” he said.
Cuba’s economic future, he said, depends not only on government policy but also the growth of private enterprise.
“For Cuba to grow, it will have to link itself to the global economy. That will require some reforms internally here in Cuba,” he added.
“Cubans should steal ideas from wherever they see them working,” he said and also noted that some economic models just don’t work and shouldn’t be emulated.
Echoing a familiar theme of his Cuba policy, he said: “If something’s not working for 50 years, you should stop doing it.” That applies to both the United States and Cuba, he said.
The president engaged in easy banter with Cuban entrepreneurs from a self-employed barber to a T-shirt maker, agricultural cooperative president, and a woman who has started an online attractions and business guide. He encouraged them to keep going.
And he told the barber, “If I hadn’t just gotten a haircut, I’d stop by your shop.”
During one of the sessions, SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet gave a shout-out to Niuris Higueras, one of the first graduates of CubaEmprende, an entrepreneurial program run by the Catholic Church.
“She told the other women in the audience to be a leader; you can do this too, and they were inspired by it,” said Jodi Hanson Bond, Americas vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Higueres, who started the private restaurant Atelier with her brother, sobbed at the recognition from Contreras-Sweet. In the past, Higueras has participated in several entrepreneurial exchanges in Miami.
Among the South Florida executives who attended the entrepreneurial event were real estate giant Jorge Perez and Mike Fernandez, chairman of MBF Healthcare Partners.
“There’s a lot of change happening in Cuba,” said Fernandez. “There’s been a quiet revolution over the last few years that some in our hometown don’t want to see it.”
He pointed to some 500,000 Cubans who are now self-employed as cuentapropistas. “That is where the creativity is going to come from,” he said.
But that’s tempered by a Cuban brain drain as many Cubans seek economic opportunities abroad. “Unless Cuba gives them a reason not to leave, they will leave,” he said. “We are willing to help them in keeping their talent.
“For that, there needs to be acceptance but some Cubans still view Americans as their enemies and some in our community see Cubans on the island as their enemies.
“We’re neither,” he said. “We’re each other’s saviors.”