Over the past several years Cuba has seen many changes. Since Raúl Castro assumed the Cuban presidency in 2008, he has introduced a number of economic reforms that have removed many commercial restrictions and lessened government control. This has resulted in a growing private sector and a rise in Cuban self-employed entrepreneurs.
These reforms, in addition to the normalization of diplomatic rights between Cuba and the United States, means there are new opportunities for Cuban entrepreneurs and for international collaboration. This summer, Arthur Williams ’16, working with Visiting Assistant Professor of Government Omobolaji Olarinmoye, is using an Emerson Grant to research one aspect of this developing field. He is analyzing Cuba’s current micro-finance policies and assessing the positive impact that future microfinance efforts could have.
This project is not Arthur’s first experience with microfinance. He is vice-president of the Hamilton Microfinance Organization, and he has also completed a summer internship with the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, a non-profit dedicated to helping Bay Area (Calif.) entrepreneurs develop their small businesses. Through these experiences, William reported, “I have witnessed firsthand the positive impact that microfinance efforts can have on a community.”
The goal of Williams’s Emerson project is to assess how microfinance may be able to help Cuban entrepreneurs. He spent six weeks in Cuba interviewing local entrepreneurs. He was able to speak with 40 people who have already started their own small businesses and 40 more people who are interested in doing so; he wanted to learn about these entrepreneurs’ goals, needs and challenges. Williams realized how important it is to understand entrepreneurship specifically within Cuba. He wanted to understand “how it functioned, what it meant to the people, the obstacles that people faced and benefits they earned.” This understanding would help him to analyze what kind of a need there was for microfinance services.
After completing 80 interviews, Williams has learned a lot about entrepreneurship in Cuba. The growth of the Cuban private sector has created a lot of opportunities for small-scale entrepreneurship. This is a positive change, as the average entrepreneur and micro-business employee can typically make significantly more than state employees. According to Williams, this means that “many people would choose to engage in entrepreneurship if they had the option.”
However, Cuba’s current support for small business growth is insufficient for many entrepreneurs. The Cuban government does have a policy in place to provide loans to self-employed entrepreneurs. In practice, however, few people have access to these loans. This means that the biggest challenge for would-be entrepreneurs is a lack of start-up capital. Williams found that most Cubans who have been able to start their own businesses were relatively well-off or had family abroad who could help them to procure funds.
He said, “Most of the people I interviewed who were interested in starting a small business thought that lack of startup capital was their greatest obstacle and indicated that if micro-credit was more easily available they would make use of the opportunity.” While a lack of capital is not the only challenge for Cuban entrepreneurs, Williams hopes that as collaboration between Cuba and foreign government improves, microfinance from both within and without Cuba can fuel the growth of small businesses.