Cuba in the spotlight at eMerge Americas as Trump nears a policy announcement

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An eMerge Americas attendee snaps a photo on a smartphone. Photo by eMerge Americas.

With President Donald Trump likely to roll back some of the U.S. opening to Cuba soon, leaders in the push for U.S. engagement spoke out Monday at a Miami tech conference on reasons to keep and deepen ties – especially to support the Cuban people and their business development.

“Remittances and tourism are the lifeblood of the small private sector in Cuba,” accounting for the bulk of start-up funds and revenues for Cuba’s budding small-business community in recent years, said James McIntyre, chairman of the Cuba Emprende Foundation, which trains entrepreneurs in Cuba.

A rollback of Obama-era measures allowing greater U.S. cash flows and U.S. travel would hurt Cuban entrepreneurs, whose growth represents “the beginning of a broader reform” on the island, said Ben Rhodes, a top Cuba adviser to then President Barack Obama and now to the Obama Foundation.

In tech specifically, Cuba has a large surplus of IT talent, and limiting its tech professionals from selling services to the U.S. hurts not only those Cubans but also U.S. companies that could benefit from their skills, from giant Google to tiny startups, according to the panelists.

“Cuba and the Cuban people have so much to offer the rest of the world,” said Brett Perlmutter, head of Cuba strategy and operations at Google, which has been expanding connectivity on the island.

A century ago, Cuba became one of the first countries in Latin America to develop its own domestic telephone company, and it quickly expanded its service overseas. It was also an early hub for regional money wires transfers.

Perlmutter said Cuba could be a tech center again.

The comments came during a panel discussion on “Cuba: The Case for Continued Engagement,” moderated by journalist Soledad O’Brien on the first day of eMerge Americas, the annual tech conference held in Miami Beach. This year’s event expects a record 13,000 attendees.

The Trump administration has been reviewing Obama’s measures thawing Cold War relations with Cuba, and Trump is expected Friday at Miami’s Manuel Artime Theater to announce some reversals, according to news reports. Diplomatic relations likely will remain, but new limits may be placed on U.S. travel and commerce – as Trump aims to appease Cuban-American hardliners who backed his candidacy.

U.S. airlines, cruise lines, hotel companies, agricultural exporters and others active in Cuba have rejected a rollback, arguing it could hurt their business and U.S. jobs. A group of retired U.S. military leaders warned a tougher U.S. stance would be counterproductive. Plus, some House Republicans wrote Trump that a pullback would give more space to Russia and China in Cuba, undermining U.S. security interests.

The success in Cuba of Airbnb, the online booking site for private room and home rentals, shows how U.S. engagement has helped strengthen entrepreneurship in Cuba, said McIntyre. Since entering Cuba in 2015, Airbnb has grown to 22,000 listings on the island, more than in San Francisco, Boston and other major U.S. cities. Hosts in Cuba have been paid an average $2,700 from AirBnB yearly, while Cuba’s government pays its workers an average of about $400 yearly, an Airbnb report said.

Rolling back U.S. engagement is “more likely to delay the political changes we’d like to see in Cuba,” Rhodes told hundreds attending the panel. “The Cuban people once again will be the losers.”

Assuming a greater opening ahead, however, the panelists envision a bright future for Cuba in 20 years.

Perlmutter imagines “a Cuba connected seamlessly to the world, with a thriving entrepreneurial community. Maybe there’ll be a Silicon Malecón,” he said, referring to the Spanish name for Havana’s iconic sea wall.

McIntyre sees parallels with Israel, another small country with a highly educated population and a large and strong diaspora that can provide support. Israel’s economy now is about five times the size of Cuba’s, but by 2037, “Can Cuba close the gap by half? I think it’s possible,” said McIntyre.

Rhodes said Obama’s Cuba policy sought to get governments “out of the way,” so U.S. companies, nonprofits and others could have more direct contact with the Cuban people, helping to empower them. Ultimately, Cuba’s future depends not on governments, said Rhodes: “It’s up to the Cuban people.”

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