By Ira Gostin
For over fifty years the entrepreneurial spirit of Cuba was frozen in time. But now, with the change in diplomatic and economic relations with the United States, Cuba has seen the birth of the cuentapropista, or entrepreneur.
For most of us in the U.S., Cuba has been the forbidden island. Some of us grew up with the fear of nuclear attack, with the Bay of Pigs and the headlines of the Soviet influence, secret police and isolationism that represented this mythical place.
Old cars, mojitos, Cuban jazz, cigars and the larger than life Fidel have been the knowledge base of what Americans know about Cuba. Sprinkle in some baseball and Communism and that’s the extent of it.
But in-person, you find a kind, passionate, curious population, who desperately want to know their norte americano neighbors and be a part of the global culture. While my experiences might not be definitive in just two visits, I have found there to be a fascination with Cubans wanting to know us. “Why do you hate the Cuban people,” I was asked by Esmeralda, an elderly woman at a jazz club two years ago. I tried to answer that it’s not hate, but propaganda, big ego leaders, failed policy and a lack of change that has kept our two peoples apart. She shared with me stories of her happy life, her children and grandchildren and her love of music. She was very forgiving of my Spanish, and hopeful of a relationship between two countries she did not ever think she would see in her lifetime.
Paladares are the privately-owned restaurants that have become legalized in Cuba over the past few years. They began about four years ago in the homes of families, licensed by the government, but individually owned. The restaurants were the first driver of capitalism in the country. Now you can find restaurants that are in buildings, not just homes.
In the two years since my first visit, I have met an artist, jazz club owner, jeweler, hair stylist and chauffer, all cuentapropistas who are hungry for information about entrepreneurism and contributing towards moving the Cuban economy and culture into the 21st century.
According to the executive director of the Northern Nevada International Center at the University of Nevada, Reno, this is the time for Cuban entrepreneurs to forge their place in the world. “For Cubans, the key to economic improvement will be their ability to start their own businesses and explore entrepreneurial opportunities,” said Carina A. Black, Ph.D.
“For the past six decades, such efforts have been stifled by the government, yet Cubans are hungry to re-engage with the rest of the world and showcase their culture, their music and other treasures. This is an exciting time for closer engagement between U.S. and Cuban entrepreneurs and to forge relationships that will benefit both sides,” she added.
This isn’t political commentary. Fifty years of failed policy begged for change. This is about the Cuban people and us norte americanos moving the global economy forward. I’m looking forward to positive changes by President Raul Castro, cultivation of the Cuban entrepreneurial spirit and to our next visit.
Ira M. Gostin, MBA, is the president and chief marketing officer of 120 West Strategic Communications. He and his wife are frequent world travelers and just returned from their second trip to Cuba visiting Havana, Pinar del Rio and Vinales.