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

At first glance, Cuba and Colorado appear to have little in common. One of the most prosperous states in the U.S. presents a stark contrast to an impoverished, communist island nation nearly 2,000 miles away.  But the interconnections are substantial and even surprising, spanning more than a century to the present day.  

Two events this week reflect Coloradans’ continuing interest in Cuba: The Biennial of the Americas’ forum in Denver today on U.S-Cuba re-engagement at Liberty Global’s headquarters in Denver, and the Boulder International Film Festival’s presentation this weekend of two films with a focus on Cuba. 

Anna Alejo

In addition to these cultural connections, deep historical, political and economic connections offer abundant opportunities to benefit our state and help shape our nation’s relationship with a longtime adversary. 

The history of Cuba might be dramatically different were it not for Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Henry Teller. In 1898, as the Spanish-American War erupted, Teller successfully proposed an amendment to the U.S. declaration of war prohibiting the U.S. from assuming permanent control over Cuba. 

“The American flag is the best flag in the world for Americans. … It is not the best flag for Cuba,” Teller later said on the floor of the Senate. 

Fast forward more than a century and both of Colorado’s current U.S. senators have been actively engaged with Cuba.  Sen. Michael Bennet announced in 2016 the launch of Colorado’s Engage Cuba Statewide Council “to open trade opportunities to Cuba and end the travel ban” and co-sponsored the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act and the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act.  

The following year, then-governor (now U.S. senator) John Hickenlooper became the highest-ranking elected U.S. official after President Donald Trump’s election to meet with top Cuban diplomat Josefina Vidal in Havana.  Hickenlooper traveled to Cuba with a delegation from the Biennial of the Americas, the international cultural event promoting Western Hemispheric ties (commencing again this month) that Hickenlooper launched as Denver mayor.

Both Hickenlooper and Gov. Jared Polis (when he was a member of Congress) have met with Cuban entrepreneurs who were hosted in Colorado by 10X10KCuba, a competition to propel Cuba’s startup community and entrepreneurs.

Cuba and Colorado also share several top industries, including energy production, agriculture, and tourism.  Hickenlooper has noted the potential to share Colorado’s expertise with Cuba in a range of areas including clean energy and agriculture.

A vintage car travels down a street in Havana, Cuba, in December 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

James Williams, the president of the Engage Cuba Colorado State Council, has said that “opening up trade with Cuba would provide tremendous opportunities for Colorado agriculture, manufacturing, technology and renewable energy sectors.”

Economic productivity is one area where Cuba and Colorado differ by a wide margin, not surprisingly.   While the GDP per capita for Colorado is $61,311, in Cuba it is an anemic $8,822.  (One social indicator that is quite similar is average life expectancy — 79.7 years in Colorado and 79.4 in Cuba.)  The faltering economy in Cuba is a function of a state-controlled economy and does not reflect on the island’s many creative and energetic entrepreneurs.   

Coloradans also have demonstrated their interest in seeing Cuba for themselves. An estimated 11,000 Coloradans visited the island in 2018. 

But the Trump administration increased restrictions on travel to Cuba through several means, including prohibiting cruise ships, reducing commercial flights, developing a “Cuba restricted list” of 231 hotels and other entities owned or controlled by the Cuban government, and eliminating people-to-people educational travel.  Those restrictions, combined with COVID-19, substantially reduced the number of U.S. visitors to Cuba. 

The Biden administration has indicated it will loosen travel restrictions, although to date no changes have been made.  The changing politics in South Florida and failure of the Cuban government to implement meaningful improvements in human rights, as exemplified by their repressive response to the San Isidro movement,  has put on indefinite hold any broader restoration of the Obama administration’s policies toward Cuba. 

But Coloradans need not be discouraged from traveling to Cuba.   The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control still provides 12 permissible categories of travel.  Among the broadest and most flexible is the “support for the Cuban people” category, which accommodates all the traditional tourism activities, such as dining at restaurants, shopping and traveling the island.  

The caveat is that the policy directs spending your dollars at privately-operated businesses including lodging (casas particulares), restaurants (paladares) and stores (cuentapropistas).  Regardless of federal regulations, U.S. visitors to Cuba should be directing their dollars to the private sector and will find the quality of service to be much higher than at government-operated alternatives. 

The Cuba Study Group, in its policy vision for U.S. engagement with Cuba, has offered other suggestions to promote the private sector in Cuba, including authorizing U.S. business-to-business services and direct investments and removing tariff barriers for Cuban entrepreneurs.    

Growing the government-limited private sector in Cuba offers the most promising pathway for addressing the acute shortages of basic necessities, sense of hopelessness and enormous loss of talent from the tens of thousands fleeing the island every year. 

And it also would create exciting market opportunities for Colorado businesses.

Anna Alejo is a communications consultant, board member of WorldDenver, served as Colorado director of 10X10KCuba and travels frequently to Cuba.       


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Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Anna Maria Alejo