What’s Next for Cuba’s Entrepreneurs?

By Diego Tamburini

What if the first thing that becomes democratized in Cuba is innovation?

As the world knows by now, President Obama recently announced that the US will restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. This is major international news and no matter what side of the debate you are on, one thing is certain: this shift in policy has the potential to change the lives of an entire generation of Cubans.

I am excited about this historic shift. Personally, I hope this development will become a lighthouse example of the benefits of a friendly relationship with the US, and encourage Latin American governments that have been siding with Cuba (particularly the government of my country of origin, Venezuela) to reconsider their obsolete and damaging anti-US postures. I think that opening the lines of communication — and hopefully the lines of trade and investment next — between the US and Cuba could be a great thing for the Cuban people.

I will let others more qualified than me comment on the political and economic implications of this shift. Instead, let’s imagine what could happen if Cuban inventors and entrepreneurs gained more access to the same means of innovation and production as their counterparts in the U.S. We are in the midst of a manufacturing renaissance since the barriers to access to the tools and resources necessary to design, manufacture, and distribute products are lower than ever. What if this renaissance was the first thing to change for the Cuban people?

Despite the fact that Cuba does export goods like sugar, refined petroleum, nickel mattes, rolled tobacco, liquor and, more recently, pharmaceuticals, it doesn’t have much in the way of a manufacturing infrastructure. The little infrastructure the country had before the revolution in 1959 is either ancient, in terrible shape or gone altogether, and will likely take decades to rebuild. Will opening relations with the US reactivate Cuban manufacturing and make it a significant exporter of manufactured goods to the US (or to the rest of the world, for that matter)? Will American companies offshore manufacturing to Cuba one day? It is hard to answer these questions at this point since the controls and regulations that the Cuban government will want to impose on trade, currency exchange and private investment are still to be determined. And, of course, the trade embargo still has to be lifted by the U.S. Congress, something that is far from a done deal.

But despite these challenges, I am optimistic that the Obama administration has started a historic process. And I am particularly hopeful about the possibility of this shift enabling innovation in Cuba, and even of the possibility of an innovation trade between the US and Cuban inventors, makers and entrepreneurs.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention; and Cubans have certainly had their share of hardship.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention; and Cubans have certainly had their share of hardship. As a result, they have become natural-born hackers and incredibly resourceful makers. Cubans could also teach us a thing or two about recycling and refurbishment. Examples of Cuban inventiveness are fascinating (for a taste, just watch the short documentary “Makers in Cuba: DIY Becomes Do or Die”). Imagine if we could arm all this ingenuity with state-of-the-art technology and resources. Just sit back for a moment with your Cuba Libre (a.k.a. Rum & Coke) in hand and picture the following news headlines:

  • “A first for Cuba: Cuban inventor funds his project with Kickstarter
  • “Mark Hatch cuts inaugural ribbon of TechShop Havana”
  • “Autodesk expands its Free Software for Education Program to Cuban students and teachers”
  • Quirky cuts its first check to Cuban inventor”
  • “Cubans captivate American makers with their life hacks on Instructables
  • GreenBean hack by Cuban student makes its way into commercial GE refrigerator”

At the outset of December, it would have been ridiculous to even suggest the possibility of such things ever happening in Cuba. But now we have a reason to dream. Today, I am allowing myself to get excited about the possibility of Cuba becoming a beacon of innovation for Latin America in my lifetime.

Follow Diego on Twitter @diegotamburini