A Startup CEO Visits Cuba in Transition


I just returned from several days visiting Cuba with several of my BFFs. No amount of pre-reading prepared me for the wonderful experience. Americans cannot go as “tourists,” but must go on an approved people-to-people exchange. As such, we visited schools, farms, a university, children’s programs, museums, churches, a factory and the like.

I’m sharing ten observations on everything from Communism to infrastructure to happiness.

As a startup CEO, I also went wondering whether and when Spare5 might engage Cuba and Cubans—as suppliers of the human insights we source, and customers who need high-quality data to train artificial intelligence engines.

The short answer: not any time in the foreseeable future. Many Cubans have an entrepreneurial, optimistic spirit that bodes well for the long-term. But for now, Cuba is isolated, antiquated and underdeveloped.

The author, center, in yellow, and fellow travelers at a Cuban school. Photo courtesy of Matt Bencke

The author, center, in yellow, and fellow travelers at a Cuban school. Photo courtesy of Matt Bencke

Once both the U.S. and Cuban governments open up the technology, banking and regulatory structures, and Cubans have unfettered access to the Internet, that will change quickly. At that point, I imagine that Spare5, and many other high-technology companies, will find a rich, untapped market of educated consumers and suppliers who are eager to join the Western world.

1. Communism. Cuba is Communist the way Marx, Lenin and Guevara would have liked it. Unlike China, which claims Communism but embraces capitalism, Cuba is covered with propaganda espousing equality, continuous revolution and anti-imperialism. People have universal home ownership, literacy and healthcare. People don’t seem to own very much. The state controls roughly three quarters of the economy, and there’s almost no unemployment (perhaps 3 percent).

Photo courtesy of Matt Bencke

Photo courtesy of Matt Bencke

2. Embargo. That’s just as well, because there doesn’t seem to be much to buy. There’s very little private enterprise (paladars, e.g., are private restaurants). The U.S. embargo means quite a bit more than the U.S. does not trade with Cuba. The U.S. also penalizes other businesses and countries that trade or conduct financial transactions with Cuba. The net is that Cuba has massive shortages of items we take for granted. I brought baseball caps and chocolates; next time I would bring pens, guitar strings, and school supplies. For visitors, there are no banks or ATMs. Cash and carry.

3. Crime. But that’s mitigated by the fact that the country is very safe. Women left their purses out on tables when they excused themselves. Our tour guide said he’d never heard of a pickpocketing.

4. Infrastructure. Hotels are comfortable, and there are more paladars popping up. But Havana is crumbling everywhere you look, and there just isn’t enough capacity to host the possible tourist floods.

5. Poverty. We met with a Health Ministry official, who was proud that the average life expectancy is 78 years in Cuba, that there is approximately one local doctor for every 1,000 Cubans, and that there is almost no type 2 diabetes. But he bemoaned that they managed to import a $1.5-million MRI, only for it to arrive with a broken part that they … Next Page »

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