Culture Corner: A Journey Back to Cuba
I never thought in my wildest dreams that within 24 hours of my father picking me up from middle school, I would be on a boat with my family to Miami, Florida, USA, leaving the only place I ever knew: Cuba. With only the clothes on our backs, we headed toward an unknown place and future. It has been 35 years since that fateful day, and in February, I returned to my homeland with 12 EO peers, all thanks to MyEO.
Through the MyEO program, I discovered that I could easily organize a trip and share my passion with others. In this case, visiting Cuba. As a result, nine members from EO Charlotte and three from EO South Florida joined me on my adventure. Our mission was to better understand the Cuban business model, learn how we can do business in the region and determine how to support the entrepreneurial movement locally. Our stretch goal is to start an EO Accelerator program or chapter in Cuba, as its relationship with the U.S. continues to forge ahead with promise.
It wasn’t until we departed on Havana Air (one our sponsors) that reality started to sink in. I was going back to my home country, and I was doing it with several EO friends. On that first day, we had lunch at La Fontana, one of the first “paladares” in Havana. The owner explained how the restaurant started out with 12 seats in 1995 and now boasts 120, a testament to the growing business landscape. We also learned of the difficulties he faced in getting supplies, as Cuba does not have food distributors. Afterward, we met with a real estate attorney, who explained that property in Cuba can only be sold and bought by Cuban citizens, although there is a movement to try and change that.
On the second day of our trip, we visited Pro Cuba CEPEC, the office of foreign investment of the Cuban government, where we learned the government is open for investments with three types of entities: mix-company, joint-venture and 100%-foreign owned. Pro Cuba CEPEC shared a list of 325 opportunities that outside investors can evaluate, a positive sign that the government is eager to engage entrepreneurs. Afterward, we spent time with a local entrepreneur who created an accounting firm to help guide new private companies, or “cuenta propistas.” With her help, we targeted five entrepreneurs in Havana to engage and contacted a local business school to offer support.
On day three, we visited a tobacco factory, followed by a women-only cooperative that specializes in making “guayaveras,” a Cuban shirt. While there, we learned that the government recently allowed some businesses they previously owned to be owned and operated by the employees. This change is making a major impact on the day-to-day life of each individual, and has increased the productivity and profitability of the businesses. Today, the women in the cooperative are the heads of their households. They are teaching the same values to their daughters and granddaughters, many of whom have dreams of one day owning their own business.
On the fourth and final day, while most of the group departed, I visited my hometown of San Antonio de los Banos with two peers. As I toured my old neighborhood, I thought about all of the things I had learned on the trip. Namely, the value of the Cuban people and their desire to move up in the economic world. And the intention of the Cuban government to make changes; slowly, but visible changes nonetheless. I also thought about the opportunities outside entrepreneurs will have with the Cuban people, and what they can provide in return. Above all, I thought about how Cuba needs organizations like EO to support the local entrepreneurial ecosystem. We’ll get there, and when we do, it will be a win-win!
Raul Pineiro (pictured below and above with peers in Cuba) is an EO South Florida member and the founder of Innovation, a firm that provides design services and manufacturing alternatives for the food service industry. To learn more about Raul’s MyEO adventure, contact him at