A number of Canadian co-op leaders were recently in Havana to share their experiences developing social economy.
The Canadian Model of Social Economy took place at the University of Havana March 18-20, and featured Canadian co-op experts from British Columba, Quebec and Nova Scotia.
“I think Canada has a lot to share in terms of experience and knowledge of social economy,” says Eric Leenson, Sol Economics founder, who is working alongside a consortium of organizations to advance a sustainable economy in Cuba.
He says the goal of the conference was to bring Canadian leaders to Cuba to share best practices that could help Cuba avoid potential pitfalls when updating its economic model.
Under the helm of President Raúl Castro, Cuba, which declared itself a socialist state more than 50 years ago, is witnessing sweeping economic changes that will allow many Cubans to engage in private enterprise to an extent not seen since before the Cuban Revolution.
However, Cuba’s leadership is interested in developing a social economy, creating laws that provide tax incentives for incorporating as a co-operative and encouraging experimentation with the co-op model.
In addition, Cuba has committed to turning 220 of its state-run enterprises into worker-owned co-operatives. If this initiative proves successful, Eric says the government will likely transition thousands of state-owned enterprises into worker co-operatives.
Martin Van Den Borre, a co-operative development adviser for the Quebec region of Laurentides attended the conference along with Nancy Neamtan, executive director of the Chantier de l’économie sociale, which acts as a “network of networks” to promote the social economy within Quebec.
Martin says Canada and Cuba have always had a strong connection.
“I think there is a natural trust and an affinity between our two societies. I think it’s made them quite open to learning more about what we’re doing,” he says.
“We have a very developed co-op sector in Canada, it’s very diversified as well. I think they saw an opportunity to inspire themselves.”
Martin, who has been serving as the lead contact between Chantier and Cuba, says two Quebec co-op initiatives in particular are generating significant interest from the Cubans.
The first is Quebec’s youth services co-operatives, which every year encourages 2,000 young people aged 12 to 17 to identify a social need, and answer the need by forming a worker’s co-op with 10 other youth.
The youths receive support from facilitators, who ensure the co-op practises democratic management and decision-making. From setting up a local tour guide company to a farming co-op, the model is referred to as “practical and intensive training in social entrepreneurship.”
For Cuba, Martin says youth co-ops offer a practical way to begin encouraging an entrepreneurial culture in a society that has functioned mostly through state enterprises for decades.
“From an entrepreneurial standpoint, the decisions and the planning (in Cuba) has always been made top-down,” explains Martin.
“I think they saw youth co-operatives or an adaptation of the youth co-operative projects as a way to start building that collective entrepreneurial culture within their society.”
A second Quebec initiative, it’s regional co-op development offices, are also gaining interest from the Cubans.
Quebec has 11 regional development co-operatives, which aim to foster and support the development of new co-operatives. The development co-operatives are funded by the provincial government and the co-op sector on a performance basis.
Martin says co-op development hubs could support Cuba as it transitions the 220 state-run enterprises into co-ops. The regional development co-ops would also serve and inspire the next generation of co-operative pioneers by arming them with the necessary skills and knowledge to grow their co-operative.
Martin adds the relationship between Quebec and Cuba is still in the early development phases, but Chantier is enjoying being able to support Cuba in co-operative development.
“We didn’t invent anything, we’ve always inspired ourselves from other experiences and then adapted it to our own context,” he says.
“In our exchange with the Cubans we’re picking up a lot of good ideas and experiences ourselves that I’m sure are going to inspire us in our work here.”
Canada is one of several countries sharing strategies on developing a social economy with Cuba. Eric says Cuba plans to host three social economy meetings this fall and will engage Canada, Brazil and Ecuador in active conversations.
“We can compare notes and understand that social economy is a universal concept that can play out differently in different places but we can all learn from each other,” says Eric.
“I think Cuba is a great place to centralize the discussion because they’re just starting out.”
Writer: Camille Jensen
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