Can First World Corporations be a Net Benefit to Cuba?

Perhaps you have been one of the 1.2 million Canadians that visit Cuba each year that make up 40% of all visitors to Cuba. If you’re like me, you have enjoyed the sheltered hotel grounds, idyllic view of beaches and friendly hospitality more than once.

And as, a repeat tourist, you may also be curious about Cuba’s history; how it is changing and most importantly, how Cubans will fare in the face of reform. As profit motivated companies make their profit-focused plans, will the Cuban people benefit as well?

Small scale reform in Cuba has been gradually accumulating. For example, a list of legal small businesses includes professions such as Accountants, Computer Programmers and Insurance Salesmen. Surely a sign of economic potential. It also has entries like Piñata Maker/Seller, Palm Tree Trimmer and Operator of Children’s Fun Wagon Pulled by Pony or Goat.

Cubans are starting to enjoy the rights and privileges of other global citizens. In 2013, most Cubans became eligible to leave with just a current passport and national identity card, like residents of other countries.

In 1997, the Cuban government started allowing people to rent rooms to tourists through a program known as “casas particulares”. Today there are 17,000. Very recently, casa particulares got a huge boost when Airbnb started listing Cuban homes, ironically only to US customers.  This got a further boost in March 2016 when Airbnb opened Cuba to Europeans and Canadians.

At the end of 2016, there were about 8,300 Airbnb listings in Havana alone, up from 1,600 in 2015.

Past American influences in Cuba include the mafia and companies like United Fruit, (now Chiquita Brands International). According to Wikipedia, The United Fruit Company was frequently accused of bribing government officials in exchange for preferential treatment, exploiting its workers, paying little by way of taxes to the governments of the countries in which it operated, and working ruthlessly to consolidate monopolies.

There is a cool little documentary series on Cuba from Netflix that chronicles Cuba’s past misfortunes at the hands of larger powers. (https://www.netflix.com/ca/title/80109535)

Speaking of Netflix, it is also notable that Netflix offers streaming in Cuba, which is a bit surprising because the internet speeds are slow to non-existent. Airbnb hosts work around a lack of connectivity be parceling out parts of the transaction to people who might have a motor bike and a mobile hotspot. Cultural magazines get passed around on USB sticks.

Strange times.

And hopefully, times where Cuba’s northern neighbors’ can have a positive impact. Will today’s big companies and entrepreneurs buck the historical trend of Neocolonialism and provide real economic opportunity for the average Cuba citizen?

I for one, imagine and hope for huge benefits for Cuba. Take Airbnb for example. $40 a night for a rental when the typical salary is $25 per month, is an obvious benefit. And this is real help to real people you get to meet and not a faceless corporation.

But what will staying at a Cuban Airbnb be like? And is there any interest from Cuban professionals in collaborating with Canadian companies and entrepreneurs?

I’m curious, so I’m going to find out. Flights are booked. Airbnb’s booked. I’m on a 24 day Duo lingo streak. I’ve connected with a Cuban meetup group to explore the Cuban software development scene.

I’ll report back in a few weeks!

 

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