Entrepreneurship is Cuba’s best way forward

Richard Branson looking serious
Image by Molly Choma
Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson's signature
Published on 14 February 2023

In 2005, when Virgin Atlantic started flying between London and Havana, it was all but a dream to connect British travellers to Cuba, a country that had captivated their (and my) imagination for a long time. While it was possible to travel from the UK, it was impossible to bring Americans to Cuba due to the longstanding US economic sanctions imposed on the country in 1962.

The US embargo on Cuba has since been codified multiple times. This all changed in 2014, when US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro agreed on a series of measures to re-establish bilateral relations. The US authorised technology and telecommunications companies to operate in Cuba, lifted remittance caps, and issued 12 broad general licenses authorising US citizens to travel to Cuba for various purposes.

Richard Branson walking in Havana, Cuba

In exchange, the Cuban government committed to a series of bilateral talks to address issues like migration or mail service. Both nations also agreed to reopen embassies in Washington and Havana. Many debate whether the changes in Cuba were sticky enough or if the average Cuban’s life has improved as a result. Having visited Cuba during that time of change, I can tell you that the Cuban people found something new that had been so elusive for decades: hope and opportunity.

Sadly, President Trump later decided to undo the Obama-era openings through a series of executive orders. I hope President Biden will eventually deliver on his campaign promise to bring back the Obama-era reforms and promote a more open relationship to benefit the wellbeing of the wonderful Cuban people.

Havana, Cuba, downtown skyline at dusk
Shutterstock / Sean Pavone

Throughout this entire ordeal, we have lost sight of the human cost and terrible despair caused by the isolation of the Cuban people. Cuba is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises of its time. More than 250,000 people fled the island in 2022, and most Cuban emigres still attempt to make it to the United States with the hope of being granted parole. To get there, many either pay human traffickers to smuggle them through Central America or try to reach the US on rafts hastily made of Styrofoam and lumber. Many don’t make it. This mass exodus of over 2% of the country’s population represents the most massive brain drain in the history of Cuba; it could take generations for the country to recover.

So, what is the right solution to this complex, layered problem? I feel all parties will have to compromise to improve the lives of those who have been tragically caught in the middle of a 60-year long political standoff. The Cuban government needs to take bold action to make the country viable for its youth. First and foremost, it must release the more than 600 political prisoners - many of them young people who were detained for simply filming protests and never had due process in court. There could be many more prisoners that we do not know about.

Richard Branson in Havana, Cuba

Both the US and Cuba should also rally behind Cuba’s nascent private sector, which the Cuban government has recently begun to liberalise. Today, many Cubans have left state-sector employment to become entrepreneurs, creating start-ups ranging from ridesharing and delivery services to travel experiences, and fashion labels. In August 2021, Cuba allowed its entrepreneurs to establish small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) of up to 100 employees. Cuba now needs to empower these SMEs to thrive by opening access to the global economy and creating pathways for foreign investment.

The US must also rise to the occasion by allowing American investment in these start-ups and allowing Cuban entrepreneurs to access tools such as cloud-based services and APIs through a general license. It is tough enough to be an entrepreneur as it is. Now imagine the struggle of these Cuban entrepreneurs who must run their businesses without access to capital, no means of digital payment, and little infrastructure support or mentorship. The international business community must do its part and help cultivate Cuba’s startup ecosystem.

This an exciting opportunity for all sides to reverse the status quo of neglect. Cuba is only 90 miles from US shores, and failing to engage with this beautiful country and its people will create a vacuum that Russia and China are eager to fill. We must not let history repeat itself.