During the last week of June over 20 U.S. Cooperative leaders visited Havana, Cuba to engage with the Cuban cooperative sector, paving the way for U.S.-Cuba Cooperative Working Group, discussed the potential for U.S.-Cuba commerce and investment, particularly in agriculture, where cooperatives already play a significant role in Cuba.future partnerships. The leadership forum, put on by NCBA CLUSA’s
Doubling an earlier delegation in 2014, the forum brought 24 top cooperative leaders from the U.S., representing well-known brands like True Value and Organic Valley among others to visit cooperatives in Havana and Matanzas province. The goal, to support an emerging Cuban co-op sector as it forges the way to a more connected, more efficient economy allowed for exchange and pursuing concrete next steps.
“The Cuban cooperative movement beyond agriculture is really starting right now,” said Luis Dueñas Casal, President of SCENIUS, a Havana based professional services co-op and local partner hosting the forum. “This exchange helped us to get to know each other. There is the possibility of future partnerships.”
“Cuba is at an important crossroads in determining its own economic future, said Amy Coughenour Betancourt, NCBA CLUSA’s Chief Operating Officer and head of the delegation. “The cooperative movement in the U.S. and worldwide has a tremendous amount to share with the Cubans on how successful cooperative business can address both economic and social needs of people.”
Over one week, U.S. cooperative leaders from across a wide range of sectors, including finance, savings and credit, utilities, agriculture, worker-owned services and manufacturing, purchasing, consumer and cooperative training interacted and visited Cuban cooperatives to understand the current situation and discuss concrete opportunities for future partnerships. The US delegation visited many types of Cuban cooperatives including established agriculture co-ops, but also newer non-agriculture cooperatives dedicated to construction, graphic design, a professional services co-op and restaurants.
“I thought the trip was incredibly eye opening. It seemed to me that the foundation of communication between our sectors has been reinforced. This will lead to more opportunities to learn from one another and build cooperation and trade,” said Chris Maher, U.S. delegate, National Cooperative Grocers Board Member and General Manager of Briar Patch Food Co-op.
The cooperative movement in Cuba started as early as the 1930s in the agricultural sector, consolidating in the 60s and 70s. Today, there are roughly 5,500 agriculture cooperatives operating in Cuba which now manage 70% of arable land. New economic guidelines in 2011 expanded opportunities for agriculture co-ops, and for the first time, allowed for non-agricultural cooperatives in restaurants and other services. There are now approximately 500 approved co-op businesses, with plans for thousands more in the coming years.
“The people-to-people connection is so important. Cuban co-ops realize the potential for the model talking with U.S. leaders,” said Dueñas Casal, citing the example of rural electric cooperatives in the U.S.
“I was awed by the level of the entrepreneurial spirit that each of the co-ops demonstrated. Each of them had an unwavering determination to have their businesses succeed,” said Bruce Carozzi, Divisional Vice President of Retail Growth at True Value, who attended the forum.
The forum will produce a report in the coming weeks with future activities, including interest in joint collaborations to establish organic certifications of Cuban agricultural products, joint seminars on renewable energy, and access to construction equipment and materials. The U.S. Cuba Cooperative Working Group is continuing to grow technical exchange and collaboration programs based on the needs and interests identified by Cubans and the U.S. participants during the trip.