Saturday, April 16, 2016

Cuba-U.S. Entrepreneurial Forum with @POTUS in #Havana - March 21, 2016 [Video]

Below is the full video feed from MinRex (Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Relations) of the Cuba-U.S. Entrepreneurial Forum that I was honored to attend at the invitation of the White House last month in Habana Vieja.



If your time is limited, I suggest you skip to 32:20 when Obama took the stage.

1.

His most interesting initial comments came between 34:30-35:30, when he referred to the past exploitation of Cuban labor (before the revolution) and the fact that for the last 50 years it's been virtually impossible for Cubans to operate their own business on the island (because of the revolution). But that, "in recent years, that's begun to change..."

2.

Google's Brett Perlmutter, Cuba Emprende's
Jorge Mandilego, and the Cuba Emprende
Foundation's John McIntire.
Then between 36:04-37:00, Obama gave a shout out the the good work done my my friends at Cuba Emprende training thousands of Cuban entrepreneurs over the past three years. He also mentioned the fact that there are now half-a-million licensed self-employed who - together with the other parts of the non-state sector - now make up one-third of the Cuban workforce.

One of Obama's best lines came here when he struggled through Spanish words like "cuentapropistas," "casas particulares," and "paladares," finishing up with the self-deprecating line:
"My family and I ate in one [paladar] last night, and the food is really good even if my Spanish is not that great!" 
3.

A third notable moment came (at 39:14-40:03) when he indirectly noted the obstacles that continue to hobble the expansion of Cuban entrepreneurship, saying "We also know that entrepreneurship flourishes when the environment encourages success." He then ticked off a laundry list of the key internal obstacles in this area including:

  • a ban on most private professions
  • little access to small business loans or wholesale sources of inputs
  • the inability of the private sector to import supplies
  • a dual currency
  • infrastructural bottlenecks, and 
  • the need to include women and Afro-Cubans.

With deft diplomacy and an offer of an olive branch, he shifted from these critical comments to a hopeful note saying, "All are areas where the United States hopes to be a partner as Cuba moves forward."

4.

The next section between 46:20-1:25:30 is a fascinating back and forth between Obama and a series of (mostly) young Cuban entrepreneurs moderated by Afro-Cuban-Irish-American (!) Soledad O'Brien.


5.

The final - and in my mind most important - part of the event came at 1:28:03 when, after advising Cuba to "steal ideas from where ever they see them working," Obama added the rejoinder:
"Don't steal ideas from places where it's not working, and there's some economic models that just don't work. That's not an ideological opinion, but just an objective reality."
Perhaps to soften this blow, he quickly added that these changes will be internal to Cuba, "that's not gonna be determined by the United States, that's gonna be determined by the government and people of Cuba." He also reassured his mostly Cuban audience that the U.S. is not interested in Cuba failing (which is arguably the basis of the embargo) but instead, "we're interested in Cuba succeeding."

However, of the entire interaction my favorite quote came as Obama signed off (1:30:09) and drew a telling (and somewhat humorous) parallel between the necessary changes still needed in U.S. policy toward Cuba (Congress ending the embargo) and the necessary changes still sorely needed in Cuba itself.
"When I initiated the change in policy, one of my arguments was that if something is not working for 50 years you should stop doing it and try something new, and... [big applause] that applies to what the United States is doing, that also applies to what Cuba is doing."

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