One step forward, two steps back: Cooperative working group responds to new Cuban policy enforcement

Written by Amy Coughenour Betancourt, COO of International Programs, NCBA CLUSA

cuba trump 500x333 45a87cuba trump 500x333 45a87The Trump Administration’s plan to restrict U.S. travel harms Cuban cooperatives and private business owners more than the Cuban government the measures are intended to affect. [photo: AP]The last two years of progress made in the normalization of relations between the United States and the people of Cuba are being strained as President Trump announces tighter enforcement on individual travel restrictions and business transactions. The U.S.–Cuba Cooperative Working Group (USCCWG) opposes these policy actions that will reduce the free flow of people, information and goods to the island nation and hinder cooperative and other private sector growth, while further stymieing meaningful economic advances in Cuba.

The Trump Administration’s plan to restrict U.S. travel not only limits the freedom of Americans to travel to Cuba, but also harms Cuban cooperatives and private business owners more than the Cuban government the measures are intended to affect. The rolled-back travel rules will cut people-to-people and other exchanges that have provided important dialogue, material support and other engagement for this emerging entrepreneurial sector.

Cooperatives have played an important role in Cuba’s changing economic model. Cuba’s approximately 5,000 cooperatives are largely found—and historically rooted—in its agriculture sector, but non-agricultural co-ops have been forming since 2013, when Cuba began shifting many of its state-owned enterprises to autonomous co-ops.

There are currently over 360 non-agricultural cooperative businesses operating in tourism, light manufacturing, construction, handicrafts and services, such as accounting, graphic design and transportation. Cooperatives can also be formed by those wanting to start a new cooperative business.

The handover of state-run businesses to cooperative worker ownership has meant a new level of self-determination and income-generation for thousands of Cubans and an important step in evolving the economy.

Grounded in its rich history of supporting cooperative business around the world, NCBA CLUSA began laying the groundwork for engagement with Cuba’s cooperative sector in July 2014, when the organization led its initial research and education trip to Cuba to gain a clearer picture of the cooperative movement there. NCBA CLUSA, through its participation and partnership with the USCCWG, has been working since then to build a dialogue with individual co-ops and government officials to help Cuban cooperatives grow.

The group has conducted several exchanges between Cuban and U.S. cooperatives, and recently released its 2017 report. The USCCWG aims to support the emerging Cuban cooperative community through mutually beneficial commercial and technical exchanges that strengthen cooperative management, governance, efficiency and sustainability, and open opportunities for trade and collaboration.

As principled businesses founded on the ideas of democratic control, autonomy and social and economic benefit to members, U.S. cooperatives promote addressing human need over corporate profits. What better way to engage our Caribbean neighbor and encourage further openings between our governments, our people and our businesses?

The Trump Administration would be well-advised to encourage these opportunities, not make them more difficult by policies that set back progress in Cuba and stand in the way of growing, productive relationships between U.S. and Cuban businesses, communities and people.

Amy Coughenour Betancourt is COO of International Programs for NCBA CLUSA and founder of the U.S.-Cuba Cooperative Working Group. For a deeper look at the role co-ops play in Cuba’s economy, watch her PostScript interview below with Luis Dueñas Casal, President of SCENIUS, the first non-agricultural cooperative in Cuba.