Earlier this week, Vice President Biden said Cuba had made some “small encouraging signs of change,” but that the administration still wants to see “real change.”
Unsurprisingly, this didn’t make headlines. It’s a little sad but it’s not news that their two-year-old message about Cuba, “your change isn’t big enough,” still permeates the administration’s talking points.
They must have decided, if it worked for President Obama in September 2011, “We have not seen evidence they have been sufficiently aggressive in changing their policies economically,” to just keep repeating the message, even if the point they are making really isn’t so.
You might ask, what does any of this have to do with Mother’s Day? We were just getting around to that.
To its credit, the administration has spent part of the last four years advocating for women to be equal partners in more just, prosperous, and more effectively governed societies. It was just last week when Treasury Secretary Lew said: “The facts are clear: empowering women is not only a question of equity, it is simply smart economics.”
The State Department has been all in, too. They tweet about women. They herald investment in women-owned enterprises as “one of the best ways to achieve economic, financial, and social impact.” They have created a partnership program to expand women’s political and economic participation.
But Cuban entrepreneurs or “cuentapropistas” – and especially female small business owners – are rarely offered a seat at any of these tables. That’s not a big surprise either – if they are not willing to admit that economic reform is happening at scale in Cuba, where the biggest changes in its economic model are taking place since 1959 – it wouldn’t occur to them to reserve a seat for a Cuban.
That’s a shame. Paradoxically, what is happening in Cuba – with men and women leaving the state payroll for jobs in the non-state sector –happens to be consistent with the oft-stated desire by the U.S. for greater independence of the Cuban people. It’s easy for us to talk about. But, they are the ones who are taking great risks, taking on new and unfamiliar responsibilities, and making a leap at a disruptive time in Cuba’s changing economy.
A lot of these businesses fail, as do small businesses here in the U.S. But, when they succeed, as an entrepreneur named Barbara told us in our report about the future of gender equality in Cuba, Women’s Work, exciting things can happen:
“My life has improved over the last several years with the possibility of working as a cuentapropista….More than anything, the benefit of being a cuentapropista is the ability to manage your own decisions. I can decide how to invest, what hours to work, whether I want to offer specials and other decisions regarding how to manage the business. In other words, I’m my own boss and I suffer the consequences, but also reap the benefits of my decisions. Moreover, economically, there are few, if any, jobs in the state sector that can compare with cuentapropismo when it comes to salaries. I’ve been able to save a little money, invest in fixing up my house, buy my daughter what she needs and put food on the table. In the end, I’m a more independent woman. My husband and I help each other but we both contribute and I don’t have to rely on him.”
It would be nice, but only a start, if the President and Vice President credited Cuba’s government with making the changes it has, and then recognized that women like Barbara actually exist.
But they could go even further. The administration should end the backlogs and delays that cause many people-to-people groups and research institutions to wait for months to hear back on renewals and new applications, so that more Americans could visit Cuba and utilize the services in the growing private sector, helping to empower individual Cubans, just like their talking points say. If Miriam Leiva’s White House petition is any test, steps like these would be warmly welcomed in Cuba.
They could also facilitate the flow of capital to entrepreneurs in Cuba by allowing imports of products made by Cubans working in small businesses and cooperatives. They could stop freezing financial institutions with the fear of fines for engaging in legal transactions with individuals and institutions in Cuba. They could make projects that help women in Cuba eligible for remittances under the president’s 2011 policy.
In fact, there’s a lot of serious progress that could be made if they included Cuba, Cubans, and Cuban women in their vision of a more just world built on gender equality.
It’s a thought for Mother’s Day and we hope they think about it.