President Obama made headlines earlier this year by allowing Americans to travel to Cuba, under certain circumstances, for the first time in over 50 years. The Denver MBA students traveled to the country over spring break to study the entrepreneurial development that has expanded out of recent tourism prospects.
Nate Zeile, a DU student, studied how entrepreneurship has been impacting government jobs. “Tourism is booming right now in Cuba and the government, needing additional ways to build capacity for people to work in tourism, allowed people to obtain licenses to rent out rooms in their houses, charge their own rates as taxi drivers, open restaurants, and etcetera—private businesses in the traditionally socialist society of Cuba.”
The trip highlighted the fact that Americans have a limited understanding of what Cuba is really like in this day and age. “When you’re talking to the Cuban people, they’re so warm towards Americans that it’s pretty easy to forget that you’re in a country whose government considers the U.S. ‘The Empire,’” said student, Jess Davidson, “But the failure of U.S.-Cuban policy is everywhere: statements in the government newspaper, memorials to those who stood up against the ‘oppressive empire of the United States.’ I also noticed the trickle down impact of Cuba’s communist socialism—we had to buy wifi from sketchy ‘wifi dealers’ in parks who act like they’re dealing illicit drugs and there’s a black market for just about everything. Though no one is living in the streets, very few are living like kings.”
The buildings and infrastructure seem as if they haven’t been touched in years, but hundreds of workers tried to recover what they could before President Obama’s visit.
“You see that and then a few blocks away, you are in a completely different area where people are living just above the poverty line and a lifestyle that I’ve personally never seen,” said student Hannah Knauer.
“It’s almost like going to a place frozen in time,” said Stephen Miller, senior director of entrepreneurship at DU.
Though Cuba is still struggling, there are signs of economic growth that DU students were able to see first-hand. “We were able to talk to a lot of what we would call entrepreneurs when we were there. A lot of these individuals were true social entrepreneurs,” said Knauer. “One, in particular, had started a barber shop that turned into an entire street of growing projects that included clothing stores, a bar, and restaurant, and a barber shop school. We spoke a lot with the man who led the entire project, he was brilliant, funny, very honest and very devoted to creating opportunities for people in his community. We learned a lot from him and gained a perspective that I think would be rare if we had gone to Cuba without this entrepreneurial focus. It made me realize how many incredible things are happening in Cuba, how much growth and desire there is. It is going to be incredible to see how things develop.”