The Traveling Salesman President in Cuba

On the afternoon of March 21, I watched on television President Barack Obama meet and speak with Cubans who are involved in some type of commercial enterprise. The Washington crowd calls them “emprendedores.” [“go-getters”] Most were young urbanites of a nascent new class. They are apparently the hope of the Foggy Bottom strategists; the makings of the Cuba Obama says he wants. The US media at times calls them “a new class” – meaning a new class of people favorable to capitalism. A few of them spoke to the US president or answered questions that he had, seemingly assuming that their needs or difficulties could be addressed by the man in the White House. But capitalist magic does not work like that.

One person, a bit older than the newbies, spoke on behalf of a cooperative of agricultural workers. This fellow knew what his agricultural cooperative was doing and what the workers needed. He was precise and to the point. Obama did not seem to understand or did not want to address what the Cubano was saying about the impact the US embargo/blockade was having on his cooperative. The encounter with the budding capitalists was what Obama went to Havana to hear and the second encounter was one he needed to ignore as it represented Cuba’s revolutionary answer to the first one.

At one point, the US president went off in a different direction and referred to Shark Tank, one of his favorite TV shows. Yep. It seems that Barack Obama, after all, likes a Cuban — you know — Mark Cuban, one of the rich capitalists who dispense advice and sometimes money on the show to contestants with Great Ideas for not very important products. Perhaps Obama thought that that show should be a daily habit for all those enterprising Cubans. (There is no Shark Tank to help out farmer cooperatives.) Perhaps a Cuban version of the show could be called “El Garrotero” — the loan shark.

The show could even be exported to Cuba in one of the weekly paquetes. Or, perhaps it is already part of the paquete. The Paquete Semanal (weekly packages) are widely exchanged hard drives of pirated popular culture products. It might be interesting to explain to Cubans that they are already enjoying a common form of entrepreneurial capitalism in the paquete, which, after all, is capitalists capitalizing on other capitalists.

Cubans would do well to see episode 709 from the US version of Shark Tank (12 November 2015). President Obama appears in it. In that episode, the short in capital prospective entrepreneur tells the “sharks” that he needs investment. But the sharks – like the Cuban loan-shark (garrotero) ask for a big cut of potential profits and as much security as possible. Sometimes they demand a controlling interest in the company making the entrepreneur a mere manager. No need to attend business school—trust in the garrotero.

Obama should explain to Cubans that there are few winners on the show, that most contestants leave with nothing and many of those who are promised investment capital on the show, don’t actually get any when the lights go out. US capitalism, like Shark Tank is about minimizing winners and maximizing losers.

The entertainment publication Variety reported, “Daymond John, an investor on the reality series ‘Shark Tank,’ was one of nine business founders named presidential ambassadors for global entrepreneurship by the White House on Monday. John, CEO of FUBU and Shark Branding and the cast of ‘Shark Tank’ were at the White House for a ceremony in which President Barack Obama marked the expansion of the program, which is designed to promote entrepreneurship. Others named ambassadors include Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky and Glodie Blox CEO Debbie Sterling. The program is chaired by Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. Each presidential ambassador agrees to develop an initiative that includes providing new entrepreneurs with the chance to draw capital, talent and education. Tory Burch and Steve Case were among the ambassadors named when the program was launched last year.” [1]

Moreover, not long ago the White House was celebrating the “Millennial Entrepreneurs.” Yes, another new millennium for new entrepreneurs. Branding is important. [2]

The emprendedor fairy tale is now everywhere; it is a central feature of Obama diplomacy. There are numerous conferences on this theme. There will be a summit on it in September 2016 — worldwide. [3]

In the 1950s, the US Chamber of Commerce promoted the view that capitalism and Christianity were the same; that the Protestant Ethic was the ethic of capitalism and anti-communism. But now, a similar message in defense of consumerist capitalism hides behind the ideology of the New Millennium. Oddly, the Cuban Catholic church has made the theme its own as well. [4] The “theology of liberation” found throughout Latin America never reached Cuban shores. Instead, the Catholic priests spoke of “reconciliation” after 1959 and now teach classes about becoming an emprendedor. The Catholic program is called “Cuba Emprende.” The whole “emprendedor” philosophy has crossed over into numerous areas of Cuban society. The Ministry of Health, for example, has a series of webpages on entrepreneurship [although the pages are produced and maintained in Spain]. [5]

Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff have written on this subject in an issue of the journal Public Culture where they address the nature and dynamics of “Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming.” In short, the capitalist essence has remained while the dressing has been transformed. Barack is just another way of saying Ike. [6] Oddly enough, the whole millennial-entrepreneur-neo-liberal-capitalism solution theme fails to mention the very important and central role of the state in subsidizing such developments. Mariana Mazzucato has noted in the book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs Private Sector Myths the central part played by state funding in all of these so-called business entrepreneurship. The London based Financial Times writes, “The US National Science Foundation funded the algorithm that drove Google’s search engine. Early funding for Apple came from the US government’s Small Business Investment Company.” Moreover, “All the technologies which make the iPhone ‘smart’ are also state-funded … the Internet, wireless networks, the global positioning system, microelectronics, touchscreen displays and the latest voice-activated SIRI personal assistant.” Apple put this together, brilliantly. But it was gathering the fruit of seven decades of state-supported innovation.” [7] That fact, however, was not mentioned by the visitor to Cuba.


[1] http://variety.com/2015/tv/news/shark-tank-white-house-daymond-john-named-entrepreneurship-ambassador-1201492470/

[2] http://www.tvgrapevine.com/addons-10607/196-film-reviews/14769-shark-tank-sharks-meet-president-barack-obama

[3] http://www.cumbrecenit.com/presentacion.php

[4] See: http://www.cubaemprendefoundation.org/

[5] http://www.cubaemprendefoundation.org/   and see: http://emprendedores.cubava.cu/emprendedor/ also http://www.radiollanuradecolon.icrt.cu/el-cubano-es-un-ser-emprendedor-por-naturaleza/#sthash.ulaiDSAw.dpbs

[6] https://www.researchgate.net/profile/John_Comaroff/publication/31346591_Millenial_Becoming_First_Thoughts_on_a_Second_Coming/links/0c9605295ef545bf71000000.pdf

[7] Martin Wolf, A much-maligned engine of innovation, The Financial Times, August 4, 2013 http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/32ba9b92-efd4-11e2-a237-00144feabdc0.html


*My thanks to Robert Sandels for his comments and assistance.


Nelson P. Valdes is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico.