Chipping away at the Cuba Embargo with my toothbrush
Blog post by ELP Student Cameron Milne (Sport Management | Class of 2020)
Last Monday, I began my first week at Engage Cuba, a small lobbying firm in Washington DC that is trying to chip away at the embargo and facilitate more entrepreneurialism in Cuba. The firm is a team of three plus myself and another intern from Penn. We all share one small room in a shared office space, yet most of our work is done out of office. It’s complicated and atypical to most summer internships.
Most of my friends are working at high-growth startups or at prestigious accelerators with a laundry list of unicorn alumni. They are paid at least eighteen dollars an hour and have been assigned personal mentors that are personally seeing to their progress while working. Their startups cater food once or twice a week and offer Kombucha on tap. Dogs roam their offices. Tennis shoes in place of dress shoes.
Why did I give up opportunities to work in the private sector and sacrifice seeing dogs everyday? That one keeps me up at night. Some sense of duty? Burning passion to help reform a harmful foreign policy? Morning jogs with Abe and Jefferson?–I don’t know. For once in my life, however, I did feel woefully prepared.
I walked into our office that first day with a confidence that had not been there during my last few jobs. Whether I believed myself to be underqualified or undeserving of those roles–I can’t say. However, I can confirm that I had been to Cuba twice. The first time, I was representing the U.S. U18 national baseball team against some Cuban provincial all-star teams. The second time, I was performing traditional Afro-Cuban dances with the National Folklorico Conjunto, the high-brow dancing company in Havana. I had briefed myself on U.S.-Cuba relations by reading long textbooks and Cuban culture in equally long essays. Unlike many things I have done in my life prior to this, I was well-positioned to make an impact at this lobbying firm.
My first day didn’t disappoint either. My fellow intern Jack and I crammed into the firm’s one room where we were given complete access to the firm’s files and current strategies on every topic. The travel ban. Human rights. Agriculture. National security. All of our war fronts. On the second day we met with Senator Jeff Flake (Republican Senator of Arizona well known for being outspoken against Trump) who had returned from Havana at 3:00 AM that morning where he was brokering a deal with Google and Cuba’s new elected president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, to expand telecommunications in the nation. According to Senator Flake, Google was willing to expend considerable resources just to build fiber cables from Miami to Havana in effort to invite Cuba into the world of the internet. Music to my ears. And on the fourth day, we were moderating a dialogue between Senator John Boozman and three house reps on the benefits of increased agriculture exports to Cuba. By Friday, I was wandering into work wondering what exciting thing was going to happen next. It seemed like the embargo was going to be lifted right before my eyes and I was going to have both hands on the levers of the construction machine. There’s a small natural high that follows these conversations with suave, charming politicians that glaze over the obvious benefits of more trade and travel with Cuba.
“So when do you think these bills will pass?” I asked my supervisor, eager to get on with the actual lifting of the embargo.
“Well,” she began, taking a deep breath. “The travel ban bill has been put on hold indefinitely, thanks to the Donald; most republicans aren’t going to vote on something that opposes Trump’s immigration policy; and the agriculture bill, if we’re lucky, might get passed sometime next year, but that doesn’t guarantee it will have anything to do with Cuba!”
What?!?–I thought. The earliest possible thing Engage Cuba will have accomplished on the hill COULD POSSIBLY BE next year??
“Nothing can be done until the Republicans no longer have all three branches??” I pressed.
“There’s a lot to be done! It’s on us to change the narrative and…” her voice faded into the background. My summer vision was shattered. Our first week’s efforts felt like a waste. This summer had gone from a season of House of Cards to a few months of busy work, watching CNN, and reading funny yet sobering editorials on the most recent tweets of the Donald. What I thought was going to be a summer of real, palpable impact had derailed. Did I mention it’s unpaid?
I wandered back to my dorm at George Washington University that night wondering if I could beg one of the local restaurants to let me clean their floors with my toothbrush for a few dollars. My roommates were all partying. They had just began their research in their respective engineering fields with unlimited access to the Library of Congress and were celebrating the start of an “unforgettable summer.” I gave them a thumbs up and went to bed.
Sometime between laying there and falling asleep, a small, bald fairy flew into my room that was none other than Jeff Bezos himself. “Unrealistic beliefs on scope – often hidden and undiscussed – kill high standards. To achieve high standards yourself or as part of a team, you need to form and proactively communicate realistic beliefs about how hard something is going to be.” (You can read the rest of his annual letter to his stockholders here)
Lifting the embargo doesn’t happen in two months. Not understanding the length of Engage Cuba’s timeline on these issues would inevitably disappoint me when things take longer or are harder than I expected. Being wooed by the flashy progress of meeting with important legislators gave me the impression that real progress was being made, when in fact there was little to show for those meetings.
Over the next week, I developed a sense of our daily and weekly schedules and the timelines of our current strategies. Sure, it was a lot of blocking and tackling with politicians and business owners. More was said, less was done. But, this is the song and dance of lobbyists–and as it turns out, most other entrepreneurial ventures. Unicorns aren’t built in summers. Nor can large funds be raised or seasoned CEO’s developed in that time span. Understanding that difficult problems take much longer than we can analyze in an entrepreneurship class will ensure we don’t set ourselves up for disappointment.
And despite the lack of actionable policy changes on the horizon, we are making serious progress, progress that has eclipsed many of the other small lobby shops in DC. A kind of progress that like startups, employs time and resources meticulously. Which house reps have not yet gone public on their support for ending the trade and travel ban? What important influencers in their state might stand to benefit from relations with Cuba? What unique strategies can we employ to spur those influencers to jump on board with us?
Here’s one: Pennsylvania dumps out 40% of its milk every year. Guess who experiences dairy shortages? Cuba has A LOT of rum. And guess who wants more Havana Club rum?
It’s overwhelmingly simple after navigating the trade statutes. These are the small battles we can help to facilitate under an unhelpful Donald era. Cuba is absolutely unique here in DC. Everyone that’s ever been becomes weirdly passionate about wanting to see the United States restore diplomatic relations. It is one of the few, rare issues that brings together the far left–which cites the lack of human rights in Cuba and how the lifting of the embargo would spur change–and the far right that adamantly believe Trump absolutely cannot tell them where they can and cannot vacation. The timing is ripe and entrepreneurial-minded lobbyists might be the right type of person to navigate those waters.
Being the guy that helps bring Cubans much needed dairy products while providing additional revenue for Pennsylvania farmers?–that’s pretty rewarding.