Cuba’s Economic Reforms: A Window of Opportunity
By Tomas Bilbao
Few times, if any, in Cuba’s modern history has there been such an opportunity to help fuel the seeds of change on the island. The process of economic reforms put in place by Raul Castro, though limited and often contradictory, provide a window of opportunity help thousands of Cuban entrepreneurs succeed in starting and operating their own, independent businesses.
For years, the focus of those interested in planting seeds of change in Cuba has been almost exclusively on providing humanitarian and democracy-promotion assistance in the way of U.S. government funded programs through NGOs. While this work is important and can be productive if properly managed, it is limited in both scope and effectiveness. The U.S. government monopoly on assistance to the island until recently has relegated the immense potential of family and people-to-people assistance to the sidelines.
Two important factors have changed the landscape today:
1) Cuba’s process of economic reforms: In an effort to attempt to rescue Cuba’s failing economy, the Cuban government has begun to implement unprecedented reforms which include the authorization of a limited number of self-employment categories.
2) Recent changes in U.S. policy: Regulatory changes by President Obama created new opportunities for civil society in the U.S. to assist civil society inside Cuba through travel, remittances and people-to-people exchanges.
Given the ability of Cubans to start their own businesses and new U.S. regulations that allow U.S. citizens to assist Cubans on the island directly, those interested in helping empower Cubans on the island to determine their own future can now do so directly. Here are some ways U.S. nationals can help plant seeds of change in Cuba:
• Visit family: Given the isolation of the Cuban people, their contact with the outside world has been limited. This means that the opportunity to visit family in Cuba provides them with a window to the outside world. By taking them information and resources, U.S. nationals can help their families in Cuba take advantage of the economic reforms.
• Send remittances to family in Cuba: U.S. nationals can now remit unlimited amounts of money to family residing in Cuba. This money can be used to help them meet basic needs or to start their own small businesses to reduce their dependence on remittances and government programs.
• Send remittances to civil society: New U.S. regulations allow U.S. nationals to remit up to $500 to non-family members per quarter, per recipient “to support the development of private businesses, among other purposes.” This empowers every American to become an agent of change and makes every Cuban a potential entrepreneur.
• Participate in people-to-people exchanges: Thanks to the new regulations, U.S. nationals who do not have family on the island can also help empower Cuban civil society through direct contact. Educational, athletic, cultural and religious organizations are now authorized to travel to Cuba under a general license if they meet certain conditions. These exchanges can serve to provide Cuban entrepreneurs with information and training to start of expand their independent businesses. It also allows academics; artists and athletes to better understand the needs of the Cuban people in order to take advantage of new U.S. regulations.
There is no question that Cuba’s economic reforms have been timid and are limited in scope, nor the fact that U.S. regulations continue to present important barriers to assisting civil society in Cuba, but the environment today presents the best opportunity in half a century to empower civil society. These important changes allow any U.S. nationals to become agents of change regardless of whether they have family on the island. Since these regulations were announced, over 300,000 Americans a year have visited family on the island and another 100,000 have engaged in people-to-people travel. In addition, approximately one billion dollars has been sent as family remittances with up to another billion has been taken in the forms of goods by travelers to Cuba.
The enormous potential created by these reforms and changes in U.S. policy represents the best window of opportunity help empower civil society in Cuba in decades. All Americans, not just those with family on the island, can become agents of change by taking advantage of this opportunity to help entrepreneurs on the island start and expand their independent businesses. Doing so will help them reduce the dependence on the Cuban government and remittances from abroad, empowering them to become authors of their own future. This is an opportunity that should not be missed. Now is the time to plant seeds of change in Cuba by supporting its budding entrepreneurs.
Tomas Bilbao is Executive Director of the Cuba Study Group and is an MBA candidate at the Kellogg School of Management. He was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela and is passionate about promoting and defending democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @TomasBilbao.