Living under a hardline Communist government since 1959, Cuba’s would-be entrepreneurs have traditionally found it tougher to get business off the ground than in many other countries, but not impossible.
The country has long had a thriving small business scene, which has opened up much more in the past two decades as business education has become more readily available. The softening of both government policies and negative social attitudes restricting the accumulation of personal wealth has helped as well.
Right now, the Cuban government has 201 categories of small and medium-sized private businesses that citizens are allowed to engage in. Some examples of fields in which entrepreneurs have been able to thrive in Cuba include food service and restaurants, health and beauty aids, and the growing of organic produce. The country has also a had thriving film and tourism industries that need to be supported by private businesses.
Though government policy puts limitations on business activity and can be a source of frustration and stifled growth to Cuba’s entrepreneurs, perhaps equally frustrating is the longstanding embargo placed against the country by the United States. The initiation of the normalization process between the two countries in late 2014, plus the ceding of power (and recent death) of longtime militant socialist leader Fidel Castro, offers hope to entrepreneurs in this area. As of late 2016, one can now take a flight, get mail delivered or take a cruise ship to the country legally from the United States. The embargo remains in place, requiring Congressional approval to be lifted. It is, at present, very unclear as to if and when this is going to happen.
At the moment, life for Cuba’s entrepreneurs continues as it has recently. It’s much easier to communicate with potential clients outside of the country, as well as secure supplies for their businesses. Business owners in the country are also currently allowed to ship a wide variety of goods to the United States, so long as they are not on the list of items commonly prohibited by customs.
Internet access has been a stumbling block for businesses in Cuba, but that is starting to thaw along with other government policies toward a privatized economy. The government still controls all internet access and does not allow private connections inside homes or most businesses. To allow internet access they have created both public WiFi hotspots and a series of government-run internet cafes throughout the island. Computer ownership has been legal in private homes since 2008, and there has been mounting public pressure to increase broadband access to the island. The Cuban government has begun experimenting with broadband connections in private residences in the Old Havana area just this year. They have also made a commitment to open at least 30 more WiFi hotspots throughout the country.
The Cuban coffee industry has seen a particular shot in the arm from this increased ability to trade and communicate with the United States. Nespresso was quick to move in to distribute coffee from the country under their name, but since regulations require most of these imported products originate from small businesses, local farmers are seeing just as much benefit as the company is.
A great deal of uncertainty hangs over entrepreneurial activities in Cuba. It is still not clear what the incoming American government will do. Even if the incoming administration does not decide to forge ahead with lifting the embargo, increased trade opportunities will be counterbalanced by an increased presence of heavyweight American companies competing in the spaces that small Cuban businesses currently enjoy some protected rights to. Cuba’s small business entrepreneurs have made their businesses work in the face of much worse odds and have consistently displayed a superior work ethic. It’s therefore very reasonable to expect they are going to find a way to make their business work no matter what circumstances may come.