With President Barack Obama planning a historic visit to Cuba this coming 21-22 March, at a time when the general U.S. public has never been more interested in the island, U.S. companies and brands are already establishing relationships with Cuba in hopes that the decades long trade embargo finally lifts.
In an executive summary of a report entitled The Promise of Cuba, a number of Cubans spoke with a research team from J. Walter Thompson Intelligence, and remain cautiously optimistic that free trade will resume between Cuba and the United States. Even as the U.S. Congress continues to stall, and nearly 70 per cent of Cubans today only know a time when there has been a trade embargo, this has not stopped Cubans and American businesses alike from preparing for it.
"Cuba, for Americans, is like a full moon for werewolves. They're drawn here and they don't know why," said Miguel Arroyo, an architect, historian and urban planning expert from Cuba who added that Cuba has been readying itself for more visitors and more industries for some time.
"When the USSR collapsed, by 1996 the Cuban government had to do something and began allowing people to have run their own restaurants and B & B's. For many decades there was no tourism, and eventually we became tourism of the beach and sand kind," Arroyo said.
Cubans now run private restaurants and B&Bs in the home. If the embargo is lifted, many Cubans interviewed say that they will simply need more rooms and restaurants and supplies, construction materials, electricity and the like to truly develop a tourism industry.
Brands like JetBlue, Google, and AirBnB are taking a strong interest in Cuba, and the eighth installment of the Fast and Furious film franchise is due to shoot in Cuba. Additionally, fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld is due for a Chanel cruise 2017 collection show this coming May.
When it comes to technology, Cubans have also hacked their way into the 21st century, with smart phones that work without Wi-Fi and a digital culture that thrives away from Internet connections, the report notes. According to Yondainer Gutierrez who launched one of Cuba's most successful apps "a la mesa", "we are connecting against the odds. The applications are all worked offline. But, business entrepreneurs develop ways to advertise their businesses. We have a project called Digital Cuba where young Cubans are making and developing apps that work offline."
The most widely used technology for Cubans today is called the Paquette Seminal or El Paquete.
"El Paquete was first used as a transmitter and is now referred to as the 'Internet for the Disconnected'," said Gutierrez. "El Paquete allows us to transmit current information in the country. It is the first choice for searching for TV shows etc. All Cubans know about El Paquete and it reaches all of Cuba. "
Additionally, Robin Pedraja, creative director of Vistar Magazine, which chronicles Cuba's underground arts and culture scene has already benefited from innovations like El Paquete where the content of his arts-focused contemporary magazine is gaining readership and commentary far outside of Cuba.
Mike Nelson, who visited Cuba as part of the J. Walter Thompson Intelligence team this past January, reiterated what the Cubans themselves say about technology, tourism and brands developing a foothold here.
"For me it was something of a shock to be in a country that has no Internet access, but they use technology in building websites and apps to solve problems that are specific to Cuba, and we saw a lot of apps that were built to work entirely offline, such as versions of Wikipedia, Yelp, mapping and so forth."
When reflecting on the kind of innovations he saw in Cuba, Nelson noted "Cubans have used innovation in many ways for as long as the embargo has been in existence. They can make Wi-Fi boosters out of Pringles cans, and we definitely saw how the younger generation can apply that same kind of innovative thinking to software, websites and apps. We spoke to a lot of people who are doing that kind of thing, so there definitely seems to be a strong entrepreneurial mindset among young people in Cuba.”
While much depends on whether the U.S. Congress keeps its embargo on Cuba in place, relationships between brands and the Cuban people are already being established. When the ban lifts, Cuba is likely to purchase $6 billion in goods and services from the United States annually, and will send $7 billion in exports back the other way. Until that happens, Cuba remains a market of 11 million people that is still off limits to many industries.
“Sooner or later the embargo will be lifted, “ says Rafael Hernandez, who for 26 years was CEO of the Cuban governments organization in charge of international trade. “I can’t even tell you how much will change. No one knows. But I know it will be amazing.”