California Forum

The chance to tap into Cuba’s marketplace

With a framed image of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro on the wall, a vendor organizes his tomatoes at an open-air market in Havana, Cuba, last year. As more and more islanders go into business for themselves under President Raul Castro’s economic reforms, the ethos of capitalism is increasingly seeping into Cuban daily life.
With a framed image of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro on the wall, a vendor organizes his tomatoes at an open-air market in Havana, Cuba, last year. As more and more islanders go into business for themselves under President Raul Castro’s economic reforms, the ethos of capitalism is increasingly seeping into Cuban daily life. AP

Like President Harry Truman with Israel and President Richard Nixon with China, President Barack Obama has taken a historic and heroic leap of faith in announcing his intent to ease travel and trade restrictions with Cuba.

Cuba is truly an untapped marketplace. It’s the largest island in the Caribbean, yet its people and culture remain a mystery to many Americans who pass its shores daily on cruise ships bound for other Caribbean destinations.

With every visit I make, I continue to be amazed at what Cuban small-business owners have accomplished despite being under an economic blockade. Small private businesses are already emerging out of the shadows and represent the heartbeat of a new Cuban economy. In 2002, just a handful of private enterprises existed in Havana. Today, more than 250 private restaurants are operating in Cuba’s capital of 2 million people, and retail stores featuring luxury items such as designer shoes, housewares and furniture are thriving.

Fortunately, the rest of the world has not ignored this amazing country and its rapidly evolving small-business community. Foreign investors have had the edge on the market and continue to bring more freedoms to the island despite Cuba’s close proximity to the United States.

Depriving Cuban small-business owners of this basic freedom to collaborate, respond to the marketplace, take risks and operate independently of government control has been the most effective aspect of the U.S. embargo, but it has only succeeded in denying the average Cuban the opportunity to achieve economic prosperity.

Like many other Americans, who continue to invest their personal time and energy in the Cuban people, I have waited patiently for true reforms. I have worked within the confines of ever-changing U.S. policies toward trade and travel over the last decade, returning to the island more than 50 times on a variety of government-sanctioned trips.

Exploring the market for agricultural sales with the California Wine Institute in 2009, establishing the Californians Building Bridges people-to-people program in 2011, and cultivating personal relationships with artists, musicians, restaurateurs and nongovernmental organizations has given me a unique perspective on the limited yet positive impact these recently announced reforms will bring.

Four years ago, my local guide introduced me to a young wood craftsman, Jose Ernesto, who was creating humidors in a tiny basement in the outskirts of Havana. I met this young man and saw tremendous potential with just some additional consultation on marketing strategies and running a small business or manufacturing facility.

Since I founded the nonprofit Californians Building Bridges and the people-to-people program, I have been able to mentor this young artist and cultivate his entrepreneurial spirit and passion for his craft. Today, his workshop has doubled in size and tripled its production, and his handcrafted humidors are being sold around the world.

Despite the number of Cubans who have risked their lives aboard rafts bound for the United States, the majority of Cubans I have encountered over the years just want to make their country a more economically prosperous place to live, work and raise a family.

I am pleased that the president has overcome the politics that dictated our failed U.S. foreign policy for more than 50 years and that he recognizes that the Cuban people need more access to American ideas and resources to prosper and bring real political and economic change to the island.

Based on my experience, I am confident that Americans will be, too.

Darius Anderson is founder and CEO of Kenwood Investments, California Opportunity Fund and Platinum Advisors.

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