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Reflections on our San Francisco Global Shapers Trip to Cuba 

By Meghan Stevenson-Krausz

Editor's note: In April 2016, members of the San Francisco Global Shapers Hub traveled to Cuba for 10 days. Their goal was to explore entrepreneurship/private sector, and connect communities of young people by launching a Hub in Havana. Meghan Stevenson-Krausz, the project lead on the trip, reflects here on some of the lessons of the journey and her hopes for the future.

If you were being unreasonable, what would you do?

Little did I know that such a simple question, posed over sharing a flight of mezcales at La Urbana in downtown San Francisco would lead me to a life-changing 10 days spent wandering the colourful and decaying streets of Havana; galloping on horseback through sugar plantations; practicing my rusty Spanish with everyone willing to engage; meeting young artists, restaurateurs, tech entrepreneurs, and learning about the difficulties of starting a business in Cuba.

Horseback Riding Through Sugar Plantations in Valle de los Ingenios Outside of Trinidad

Certainly, the answer that first popped into my head was - Cuba! I would go back to Cuba! I had travelled there in 2003 with my church choir, always wanted to return, yet found every excuse why I couldn’t: it would cost too much, I didn’t have enough vacation days, my Spanish was too weak.

But the next day I made a phone call. That phone call turned into several phone calls. And just a few months later I woke up one morning realizing - I’m actually doing this. No more excuses. I’m planning a trip to Cuba. Something that had seemed impossible just a short time ago, suddenly was in motion. A leap of faith is made up of many small steps. One of the most important small steps was joining the San Francisco Hub of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community, which enabled me to even more fully realise my dream of a citizen diplomacy trip.

Old City, Havana, Cuba

Living in the UK for five years, I had seen the way most Europeans viewed Cuba as simply yet another beach holiday destination. However, having studied the impact of the US embargo on human rights in Cuba, I did not want a beach holiday. I wanted to harness the resources available to me in the Bay Area, gathering together a group of mindful individuals who would travel to the island with intention. Intention to explore the entrepreneurial sector in Cuba, while discovering opportunities to connect communities and empower young people through these networks.

This was how I came to convince a group of 9 other Americans and 1 Mexican across diverse sectors, with varied levels of Spanish, familiarity with Cuban history and culture to travel with me for 10 days on a working vacation to Cuba. What we found was a community actively trying to figure out how to navigate potentially vast changes, while remaining true to their unique culture.

The group with Employees of InfoMed, the State's Intranet for Medical Professionals

But what sort of change is going on there anyway? The media cycle would have us believe that the embargo is for all intents and purposes, no longer an issue, and that it’s only a matter of months before McDonald's and Google set up shop in Cuba. Let me tell you, the embargo is alive and well (as many hastened to remind us). It will be many more months (perhaps more than a year), before the Cuban market is “open” to American businesses in the way that I think many envisioned upon the reopening of the US Embassy in Havana. As with any relationship, there are (at least) two parties involved, and pace of movement and change that we are used to in the US is warp speed when compared to the way things work in Cuba. This was exemplified by the juxtaposition of the filming of El Rápido y Furioso 8 (Fast and the Furious 8) in Old Havana, with the ease with which taxi drivers navigated the pothole-ridden streets. We saw a film set with all the usual sleek Hollywood trappings, almost all of which had been shipped in from the States, amidst a city that is struggling just to maintain itself, with several buildings collapsing a day. In the next few years, as relations with the US continue on their detente, Cuba will see the influx of tourists more than double. Yet they barely have the infrastructure to support their already more than 3 million arrivals per year.

Trinidad, Cuba

In almost every conversation we had, it became clear that not only is Cuba’s government socialist, but the culture and society is as well, creating an exceptional community where social capital is almost more important than economic capital. When contrasted with the conditioned capitalism of American culture (in other words, not only is our economy capitalist, but our society is as well), this seemingly obvious statement became an important element of cross-cultural learning and understanding. At one point, I found myself referring to “the market” as a given, only to be reproached that it’s not about the market in Cuba. I have to admit, I doubt the complete veracity of that statement, however I was humbled to realise that having only ever taken a single microeconomics 101, I still took for granted this integral concept of capitalism. I had learned it not in the classroom, but in life.

The author and local children playing with cameras

We went to Cuba with the goal of gaining a better understanding of the entrepreneurial space and were shocked to learn there was no equivalent setup to the LLC. While starting a business in the US is not exactly easy, there is at least a sort of roadmap to success, which aspiring entrepreneurs can use as a guide. The end result is, of course, determined by many factors, but there are structures in place to support most anyone starting her own company easily. This does not exist in Cuba.

The lack of traditional systems to support entrepreneurialism combined with socialist culture has created an alternative ecosystem supported by social capital where creative responses to local problems (many borne out of long-term enforced isolationism) abound.

Meghan, Bradley, Ubaldo, Eric, Yondainer, Marta

We met with programmers and restaurateurs, government ministers and university professors, musicians and painters, health professionals and accountants. Then, of course, there were the random encounters with Cubans in taxis, on the street, in bars, riding pedicabs or bicis, as they call them. Everyone we met seemed genuinely pleased to meet Americans. It seemed that almost everyone had at least one relative or friend who lived in the US. I noticed two recurring themes in conversation: (1) our two countries have historical, as well as present day, ties that cannot and should not be forgotten, and are natural partners, at least in the eyes of the people, if not in those of the government; (2) Cubans would like to see an increase in economic opportunities and international partnerships, while maintaining their unique culture along with a strong social safety net, education system, and security.

Havana, Cuba

And then, of course, there was a third theme, ever present, casting a shadow over all else: the US embargo. Over and over we heard that the bloqueo is root cause of all hardship in Cuba. Yet people showered praise on Obama. They love him for what he has done so far and the promises he has made for further detente. There are a few grumbles that it’s not enough, but generally people seem to fault the Cuban government more, while simultaneously appreciating that Castro is taking his time to open things up in a uniquely Cuban way.

Classic Cars Abound in Havana

It is a country of paradoxes where vintage Americana is perhaps more beloved and better preserved than in the US, yet everything is blamed on the bloqueo; where literacy rates are 99.9% with some of the highest numbers of advanced degrees in the Western Hemisphere, yet the only way to make good money is to work in the tourism industry; where they graduate highly skilled computer programmers, who then have to piece together their startup ideas through a patchwork of after hours internet time at their state-owned workplace and slow wifi hotspots scattered throughout the city, liable to disconnect you at anytime. Then again, what country doesn’t have its own paradoxes. Perhaps it’s simply that these seem so stark against the backdrop of San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

Havana, Cuba

There is so much potential in Cuba and although they have been suffering a brain drain, with young people emigrating elsewhere, it looks like the tides are slowly turning. Young Cuban entrepreneurs are beginning to choose to stay, or even to return from abroad to open offices on the island. What they need are resources. Yes, economic investment would help (a lot!), but more than anything they need connections to the outside world. They need to expand their networks. This is why we, in the San Francisco Global Shapers Community, are helping to start a Global Shapers Havana Hub. And this is just the beginning. We believe this is a first step in building a network for collaboration between entrepreneurs in Cuba and abroad, to empower Cubans to solve their own local problems with global impact.

Based on what I saw there, I believe it may be years before we see real systemic change in Cuba. However, with citizen diplomacy we can begin to build and strengthen those bridges. There is a growing Cuban entrepreneurial sphere, which could benefit from the resources we take for granted. And, vice versa, with all the talk of “community” I hear in the Bay Area, we could learn a lot from Cuba. This is our goal, to bring communities together towards mutually beneficial ends, through a mutually beneficial process. Join us!

(left to right) Jorge, Asley, Rasha, Bradley, Lilibeth, Nancy, Ali, Tanaaz, Meghan, Debbie, Holly, Leslie, Eric, Nathaniel