A scene from the El Capitolio neighborhood of Havana, Cuba, in December 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The transition to a new president, particularly where there is such a stark contrast in tone and policy, represents a profound change that will impact much of our nation’s domestic and foreign policy.  This impact has been amplified by the powers and global platform of the modern presidency.  

One of those changes that will be watched closely by many, including in Colorado, is U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba.   

Many Coloradans travel to Cuba every year, and, as former Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Don Brown said in 2017,  “Cuba represents an exciting opportunity to develop new partnerships and new markets for our agricultural economy. … Colorado’s farmers have the high-quality, abundant products to help feed a growing population.” 

Anna Maria Alejo

Expectations are high that President-elect Biden will reverse the Trump administration’s policies toward Cuba that limited U.S. travel, remittances and government-to-government dialogue and return to the era of normalized relations that President Obama ushered in. 

While the toxicity in the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba should diminish as soon as Biden takes the oath of office, the substance of the policies likely will change more incrementally.  Foreign policy is not a light switch that can be turned on and off.  The myriad of policy changes that the Trump administration implemented will be reviewed and considered one at a time. 

Moreover, the changing domestic politics of U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba adds additional complexity.  The rising Hispanic support for Trump’s hard-line approach to Cuba over the past three years in the politically important state of Florida looms large.  

Some changes may come sooner than others. Coloradans looking to visit Cuba (when the pandemic permits) should expect to see commercial flights open up again.  

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For those of us who have been deeply concerned by the reckless rhetoric and unilateralism of the current administration’s foreign policy and the damage to our nation’s diplomatic ranks, a Biden presidency should provide more immediate change.  This will include a change in tone toward Cuba.

But other changes such as restoring unlimited remittances from U.S. residents to individual Cubans and re-authorizing cruise ships may take longer. Expansion of financial transactions, changes in export controls and direct banking perhaps will take even longer.    

With the limited change in Cuba’s human rights record and approach to the private sector since normalization began in the last two years of Obama’s presidency, U.S. demands for changes and concessions by Cuba will elevate as well. This includes addressing issues such as Cuban support for the Maduro regime in Venezuela and the free-market reforms that Obama forcefully called for in his March 2016 visit to Cuba.

Then-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (center, wearing red tie) meets with Cuban entrepreneurs at a 2017 program hosted by 10X10KCuba. Several Colorado businesses participated. (Photo courtesy of Anna Maria Alejo)

It is this effort to promote entrepreneurship and market reforms in Cuba that I had the opportunity to engage in over the course of many visits to Cuba, and where Colorado can continue to play an important role.

In 2017, Colorado was host to a two-week intensive program for Cuban entrepreneurs hosted by 10X10KCuba, an initiative of the Cuba Emprende Foundation.  Several Colorado companies and institutions, including Liberty Global, Boomtown, TechStars, Foundry Group, the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business, and University of Denver Project X-ITE participated.  

They provided Cuban startups with resources and training to advance their businesses.  The Cubans also had the chance to meet with two of Colorado’s best-known entrepreneurs, then-U.S. Rep. (now Gov.) Jared Polis and then-Gov. (now U.S. Sen.-elect) John Hickenlooper.  Colorado businesspeople also led efforts to bring five Havana tech companies to New York City for the first-ever Cuba Pavilion at TechCrunch Disrupt.

As we know in Colorado, entrepreneurs face daunting challenges even in our supportive ecosystem. In Cuba, the barriers for startups are considerably higher, with limited access to the internet and capital, onerous limitations on business formation and growth, and a government that has veered over the years from tacit support to open hostility to privately owned business.  

All of which makes the women and men who we brought to Colorado, and their counterparts on the island, even more impressive and worthy of admiration and support. 

As Biden charts a new course for U.S.-Cuban relations, Colorado has the opportunity to remain in the forefront of those efforts, both in pursuit of market opportunities for our businesses and with cultural and educational exchanges that can positively impact Cuban lives.  

Anna Maria Alejo is the owner of a strategic communications firm, a board member of WorldDenver, and was Colorado director of 10X10KCuba.

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Email: Anna Maria Alejo