Cuba is considering letting Cuban Americans own private businesses on the island

Miguel Díaz-Canel, X.

Cuba’s government is considering allowing Cuban Americans to invest in and own businesses on the island, Havana officials told representatives of U.S. companies and Cuban Americans from Miami who met Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel on Friday.

Cuban officials said they are “contemplating it and working on legislation to get it done,” when asked about the possibility by several people attending the closed-door event at the Cuban mission to the United Nations, said Miami lawyer Ralph Patiño, who was present during the exchange.

Cuba is facing a severe economic crisis and the cash-strapped government is unable to provide basic services. The investment of Cuban Americans in private businesses on the island could be a game changer, many observers have said. But while the Cuban government has said in the past that they would welcome Cuban American investment on the island, they have yet to issue regulations to allow foreigners to own or invest in the small and medium-sized enterprises known as pymes that were first authorized in 2021.

“This is the dog chasing its tail, because the United States is waiting for them to make the first move, and they’re waiting for the United States to make the first move,” Patiño said. “But I got a sense that they know that this is the only way to basically provide for their country without something drastic happening.”

Patiño, who supported efforts to engage with Cuba under the Obama era, said that “if those ties had been allowed to flourish, Cuba would have been a different country in 2023.”

Díaz-Canel said on his X account Friday that he met with “American businessmen, whom we update on new business opportunities in Cuba and transformations in our economy. We appreciate the interest in expanding ties and improving relations between both countries.”

He did not mention that some of the people invited were Cuban Americans from Miami, including Patiño; healthcare mogul Mike Fernandez; Ariel Pereda, the owner of a company that ships supplies to Cuba, and Hugo Cancio, owner of Katapulk, the largest online marketplace for pymes on the island.

Carlos Saladrigas, the president of the Washington-based Cuba Study Group, which says it has helped train thousands of Cuban entrepreneurs over the years, was also present.

Representatives of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Western Union, shipping firm Crowley and Paul Johnson, chair of the United States Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, which has 100 member companies, were among those invited.

During the event, the business leaders called on the Cuban government to remove obstacles to foreign investment and aid the growth of the private sector, said sources familiar with the discussion who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to comment publicly on the gathering.

But Díaz-Canel was not prepared to discuss in detail the regulations the Cuban government would need to approve to allow privately owned companies in Cuba to receive financing from U.S. companies, said John Kavulich, the president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, who was briefed about the discussions.

“While useful for President Díaz-Canel to create time in his schedule to meet with private sector representatives, the gathering was a lost opportunity to make progress,” he said. “It was a repeat of voicing grievances rather than discussing in detail how to make more of what is currently authorized by” U.S. government agencies.

Despite tight government controls, small and medium private companies, first allowed in Cuba in 2021, have become a major importer of food and basic supplies to the island and a key source of employment.

The Biden administration has made assisting Cuba’s private sector a priority, and new regulations to allow private business owners to open and operate bank accounts in the United States are expected to be officially announced soon.

A group of about 50 small business owners from Cuba are expected to be in Miami next week to discuss opportunities for trade and to understand U.S. regulations affecting their businesses.

The meeting Friday took place at the end of Díaz-Canel’s trip to New York to attend the annual U.N. General Assembly week.

On Thursday, he first met with a group of U.S. scientists and environmentalists and later with artists and activists who have supported the Cuban government over the years, including actor Danny Glover, Bridges of Love founder Carlos Lazo, People’s Forum coordinator Manolo de los Santos and Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin.

He was scheduled to end his visit with a reception Friday evening at the Cuban mission to the U.N., to which Cuban Americans and American activists supporting better relations with Cuba were invited.