The likelihood of the U.S. lifting its 54-year-old trade and investment embargo on Cuba is proving a catalyst in boosting entrepreneurship in the island nation. Cuba under Raul Castro has in recent years steadily opened up the economy and removed many business barriers. President Barack Obama’s announcement last December of his administration’s intentions to normalize ties between the two nations appears to have infused fresh energy into that economic liberalization process.

“On December 17, [in] their hearts and minds, the Cuban people started to see light at the end of the tunnel,” said Hugo Cancio, president and CEO of Fuego Enterprises in Miami, which has interests in music, publishing and telecommunications in Cuba, and in the U.S. “They now see the future they didn’t have before. Businesses are flourishing, and people are now seeking new opportunities.”

Born in Havana, Cancio migrated to the U.S. in 1980 when he was 15 years old. He has since emerged as an unofficial ambassador of business opportunities in Cuba, networking with governments in both countries. He has been a vocal advocate against the U.S. embargo and has spoken out against Cuban government crackdowns on political dissidents.

Cancio spoke at the Cuba Opportunity Summit held on April 1 at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York City, organized by Knowledge at Wharton, Wharton’s Lauder Institute and Momentum Event Group. Knowledge at Wharton interviewed him on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111 on the emerging environment for entrepreneurship in Cuba. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

“On December 17, [in] their hearts and minds, the Cuban people started to see light at the end of the tunnel.” –Hugo Cancio

Irreversible Change

In his interview with Knowledge at Wharton, Cancio said he finds “a new Cuba” every time he visits the country, with its increasingly vibrant business and economic environment. “The doors are opening; it is irreversible,” he said of the restoration in U.S.-Cuba ties. “Cubans are [now] willing to allow foreign investors in Cuba.” However, he said he would like to see Cuba open its doors wider to foreign investments. “Hopefully, that’s what is taking place right now.”

Cancio also noted that fewer Cubans are leaving the island to live abroad. “To the contrary, many Cubans are returning to their country of origin to participate in this process.” The expatriate Cuban population in Miami “will be a great ally [of] Cuba in the future,” he added.

Cancio pointed out that the older generation of Cubans in Miami has lobbied hard over the years to foster economic change in Cuba. “But there is a newer generation now that is still connected culturally and emotionally to its homeland.” Cuban natives settled in Miami own most of the flourishing businesses in Cuba, he added.

Cancio acknowledged that Cuba continues to have “some serious internal issues,” such as the economic disparity caused by the increase in entrepreneurial activity. But that won’t dampen the current entrepreneurial rush. “New business is flourishing in every sense of the word [including] factories, restaurants and clothing stores being opened by private entrepreneurs,” he said.

Slow and Measured Pace

Cuba’s economic resurgence, however, is slow and measured. “The transformation is not going as fast as some of us would like to see, but it’s their own way of doing things,” said Cancio. The reason: “The Cuban government has the historical experience of seeing what happened in the old Soviet Union, in Vietnam and in China under communist regimes. They are concerned about a disruption in their economy in the way of corruption like it happens in some of these countries, and they are taking their own time.”

“You need PPV — passion, perseverance and vision — to do business in Cuba.” –Hugo Cancio

Where in Cuba’s emerging new economy will U.S. investors find opportunities? “The first thing we have to do is to find a way to motivate [the U.S.] Congress to lift the economic embargo,” he said. Once that happens, opportunities will open up in telecommunications, agriculture, travel, media and technology — Cuba has a sizable pool of well-trained IT programmers, he pointed out.

Music, a Bonding Factor

Notwithstanding all those pluses, Cuba is not for the faint-hearted. “Doing business in a communist country in transition is not an easy task,” said Cancio. “You need PPV — passion, perseverance and vision — to do business in Cuba.”

Cancio believes his passion for music strikes a chord here. His firm has organized several U.S. concerts featuring Cuban stars, and he produced a film on a popular Cuban music group of the 1960s called “Sapphires” that his father, Miguel Cancio, had founded.

“We Cubans are very emotional, and when we sit down at a domino table some Sunday or to drink beer or a glass of rum and talk about politics, we always get into an argument,” he said. “But when we talk about our music and our culture, that belongs to us; it’s our inheritance, we own it. I think we did a great job changing the hearts and minds of people through music and culture and the concerts we have produced over the past 20 years.”