US President Barack Obama visited a Cuban “cerveceria” on Monday to talk about entrepreneurship and US-Cuba business engagement. This was his speech.
Let me begin by thanking our hosts. This is my very first visit to a Cuban cervecería. I hear they’ve got some great pollo — Moros y Cristianos. And, of course, cerveza. But today, we’re here to work.
So I want to thank all of you for being part of this unprecedented event — the Cuban government. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the new U.S.-Cuba Business Council. I’m also want to express my appreciation because we are joined on this trip by nearly 40 members of Congress, as well as some of America’s top business leaders and innovators who are eager to invest in Cuba and its people. And most importantly, I want to welcome all the extraordinary entrepreneurs — men and women who are here from across Cuba.
Now, I’m not here to give a big speech. I’m going to do that tomorrow. What I really want to do is hear from you and have a conversation about what we can achieve together. But I do want to begin by stepping back and talking about the forces and hopes that bring us together here today.
In many ways, the history of Cuba can be understood through the labor of the Cuban people. For centuries, under colonial rule, and then during decades of American involvement, the toil of the Cuban people was often used to enrich others as opposed to the people who were doing the work. And then, for much of the past half century, it was virtually impossible for Cubans to operate their own businesses. But in recent years, that’s begun to change. To its credit, the Cuban government has adopted some reforms. Cuba is welcoming more foreign investment. Cubans can now buy and sell property, and today many Cubans own their own homes and apartments. It’s easier for Cubans to travel, to buy a cellphone, for farmers to start cooperatives, and for a family to start their own business.
The United States has been proud to help. Shortly after I took office, we said that Cuban Americans could send unlimited remittances to their families here in Cuba. And we allowed Cuban Americans to visit more often. Across this island, Cubans have used those remittances often to start businesses. And when Cuban Americans come visit, they often bring supplies and materials. We also made it easier for Cuban entrepreneurs to import and to export. And since we’ve made it easier to travel to Cuba, a lot more Americans are visiting the island — you may have noticed.
So the Cuban economy is beginning to change, and just look at the results. Groups like Cuba Emprende are training a new generation of entrepreneurs. Today, about half a million Cubans — including some of you — are proud cuentapropistas — running your own restaurants, cafes, beauty salons, barber shops, or working as artists, seamstresses and taxi drivers. Your businesses now employ about one-third of the Cuban workforce. With help from services like Airbnb, more Americans are staying at your casas particulares and eating at your paladares — like my family did last night. That food was really good — even if my Spanish is not that great. (Laughter.)
Those of you who run your own business knows what this means. You can earn a little more money for your family. You can provide more for your children. And then there’s the pride that comes from creating something new and improving the lives of those around you. And that’s the power of entrepreneurship. It’s about self-determination — the opportunity to forge your own future. It’s the belief that even if you don’t have much — maybe just a kitchen, or a sewing machine, or a car — if you’re willing to work hard, you can make your own way and improve your situation in life for the next generation. It’s the spirit of youth — talented and driven, daring young people like so many of you ready to make your mark on the world.
It’s an investment in the future, because as we’ve seen in America, businesses that start small — even in a garage — can grow into some of the world’s most successful companies, and change the way we work and the way we live and connect with each other. That’s the spirit of entrepreneurship. And that’s what we’re encouraging here today. Because Cuba’s economic future — its ability to create more jobs and a growing middle class, and meet the aspirations of the Cuban people — depends on growth in the private sector, as well as government action.
And it’s not easy. In the United States, we work to help entrepreneurs and small businesses get the resources they need because it can be a struggle to get a new venture off the ground. Around the world, we help young people and entrepreneurs access training and skills to put their ideas into action. Here today, you’re talking about the challenges you face as entrepreneurs in Cuba.
Now, many of the changes that our two countries have already announced, including today, will help you to meet some of those challenges. More Americans coming to Cuba means more customers for your businesses. More Americans using the dollar will mean that they will spend more, as well. There will be more channels for you to import supplies and equipment. More Americans will be able to buy your arts, crafts, food, Cuban-origin software — as well as, of course, Cuban rum and cigars.
We also know that, around the world, entrepreneurs flourish when there’s an environment that encourages their success. When professionals like architects and engineers and lawyers are allowed to start their own businesses, as well. When entrepreneurs can get loans from banks — capital to start and expand their businesses. And then we need wholesale markets where you can buy supplies. When there’s a single currency and modern infrastructure so you can get your goods to market and import supplies. And when there’s a single currency and a modern infrastructure so you can get your goods to market and import supplies. And perhaps most importantly, when everybody has a chance to succeed, including women and Afro-Cubans. These are all areas where the United States hopes to be a partner as Cuba moves forward.
And I can tell you one of the reasons I’m so confident in the potential of the Cuban people is because you have some important advantages. Your commitment to education and very high literacy rates — that gives you an enormous advantage in the 21st century. That’s been an investment that has been made here in Cuba. Your ingenuity — who else could keep almendrons running all these years? You’ve got more than 300 million potential American customers — and one of the world’s most dynamic cities, Miami, right next door. And you have more than two million talented, successful Cuban Americans — some of whom joined me on this trip — ready to invest in you and help pursue your dreams, and have deep family commitments and deep roots in Cuban culture. So I’m absolutely convinced — if just given a chance, more Cubans can succeed right here at home, in the Cuba that you love.
So I’m here today to say that America wants to be your partner. Around this visit, American companies are moving ahead with new commercial deals. GE is going to sell more products here, from aviation to energy technology. CleBer will be the first U.S. company to build a factory here in more than 50 years — they’re going to build tractors for Cuban farmers. Starwood will become the first U.S. hotel that operates here in nearly 60 years, and Marriot plans to come, as well — and they’ll help train Cubans in the hospitality industry. The first Carnival cruise is expected to pull into Havana in May. And I will keep saying it every chance I get — one of the best ways to help the Cuban people succeed and improve their lives would be for the U.S. Congress to lift the embargo once and for all.
Here today, we’re doing even more to empower Cuban entrepreneurs. I know you’ve been networking with each other and potential American partners. Innovators in business — like Airbnb’s Brian Chesky — are sharing the lessons that they’ve learned. We’ve got a shark here named Daymond John — for those of you who don’t know, there’s a show in America called Shark Tank, which is an outstanding show where, on television, young entrepreneurs bring their ideas and present them, and they try to get some financing right there on the air. And it’s a fun show to watch. Julie Hanna supports entrepreneurs all over the world with micro-financing. So give them your best pitch. They just might bite and decide to invest.
We’re also announcing some new commitments today. As part of our Young Leaders in the Americas Initiative, we’re going to welcome up to 15 young Cuban entrepreneurs to the United States to help them get the training and skills to grow their own business. For the first time, we’ll welcome Cubans to our annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit, which I’ll host in Silicon Valley later this year. And later this year, our Small Business Administrator, Maria Contreras Sweet — who is here today. Where’s Maria? There she is. She’s going to lead a delegation of business leaders here to promote more entrepreneurship in Cuba.
And we also want to help connect more Cuban entrepreneurs to the Internet. Some are here today, including Yon Gutiérrez, who designed AlaMesa, an app to connect Cubans to restaurants; and InfoMed, connecting doctors and scientists. More Cubans are going online at Wi-Fi hotspots, but still, very few Cubans have Internet access. Although I just learned that my skit with Panfilo got two million hits here in Cuba, so that — I think with Internet access paid attention here.
But in terms of Internet access, even those who have it often are using old dial-up connections that can be expensive and slow. I don’t even remember the sound of the phone when it went (makes “dial-up” sound) — so new technology has come and we need to bring it to Cuba. “If we had Internet” one Cuban entrepreneur said, “we could really take off.”
So America wants to help you take off. And Verizon will help deliver direct landline phone connections between Cuba and the United States. Cisco has announced it will help Cuban students develop their IT skills. The American high-tech firm Stripe, is partnering with Merchise Startup Circle here in Havana to help Cubans start ventures and do business online.
The bottom line is this. We believe in the Cuban people. We believe in artists like Idania Del Rio who designs and illustrates her own goods — “99 percent Cuban design,” she calls it. We believe in merchants like Sandra Lidicie Aldama, who says, “One of the most important things in the Cuban nature is perseverance, optimism, and our capacity to find a solution to any obstacle in the way.” We believe in the entrepreneur who said, “I think with these changes in Cuba there’s no turning back.” And another who said, “This opens us up to the world.” And one who also said, “Just give us the chance.”
Just give us the chance. Well, as your friend and as your partner, the United States of America wants to help you get that chance. And we’re so grateful that we’re off to this outstanding start at this event here today. Muchas gracias.
Thank you very much. Thank you. Now, as I said, I didn’t want to just talk, I want to also hear from you. So I’ve asked to join me one of our outstanding journalists in the United States, an entrepreneur herself who works to empower girls through education. She is a proud Cuban-American who, on this visit, has brought her children to Cuba to meet their cousins for the first time. Please give her a big round of applause –Soledad O’Brien.