CubaNews / October 2007
By Larry Luxner
Someday, in the not-too-distant future, U.S. multinationals will once again be doing business in Cuba — and AmCham wants to be ready for that day.
With Fidel Castro’s inevitable passing in mind, the American Chamber of Commerce of Cuba in the United States has decided to re-emerge from its long slumber.
“This is an opportune time for discussion about change in Cuba,” said the organization’s acting executive director, Carol de Graffenreid. She cites “the turnover of the Cuban government to Raúl and the increased interest in starting a relationship with Cuba with the next administration — whoever that may be” as key factors behind AmCham’s imminent revival.
AmCham’s long-time chairman, Ed Bartholomew, said the group has maintained its Washington office even though it’s been dormant for the past three or four years.
“We entered a period in which the relationship between Cuba and the United States have been on hold, from the standpoint of both governments,” he told CubaNews. “AmCham took a back seat to wait for more positive developments. Now that there’s a change in the environment, our intent is to have AmCham gradually become more active while positioning itself to play a long-standing role in facilitating involvement by U.S. companies.”
AmCham Cuba was founded in the late 1950s by Clarence Moore, publisher of the Times of Havana. After Castro came to power in 1959, the organization became an AmCham in exile, regrouping in Florida in 1960 under the direction of both Moore and Ken Crosby, an executive with Merrill Lynch.
Among its nine listed purposes and objectives, this AmCham in exile aimed “to advocate to governments and private organizations and individuals the adoption and maintenance of the principles of democracy and free enterprise.”
In 1961, the chamber was moved from Miami to New York, but reinstated in Florida in 1979. At its height, AmCham Cuba had well over 50 active corporate members.
In 2003, when Crosby died at 87, companies listed on the AmCham board of directors included Marriott, BellSouth, Chiquita Brands International, Quantum Finan-cial Advisors, Fluor Daniel, Goya Foods and the law firm of Porter Wright.
Bartholomew, retired director of international management consulting at Ernst & Young, said AmCham Cuba was always recognized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in exile. He said it’ll return to Cuba as soon as possible — though it will not serve as a mouthpiece for either Washington or Havana.
“We are a business organization, not a political group. We do not advocate any particular political agenda,” he said.
“Two things make us different: We represent only American companies, and we do not have special relationships either with the U.S. government or with the government of Cuba. If you know what AmChams do in all the countries where AmChams exist, that’s our model,” said Bartholomew, who has been active in overseas AmChams from Bahrain to the Philippines.
He said AmCham Cuba has maintained its Washington office through the generosity of its vice-president, Jon Utley, and that the organization would continue to keep Miami attorney Carlos Porro as its Florida-based liaison.
“What we want is to move towards being active in Washington and Miami, and mobilizing the interest of those companies that want to do business in Cuba when conditions permit,” he said.
De Graffenreid, whose professional life has included careers in microbiology, psychology and venture-capital finance, is currently president of DDC Inc., a consulting firm that’s set up a joint venture in Ukraine.
In 1998, she went on a month-long medical mission to Cuba, and has been fascinated with the island and its people ever since.
“We’re not interested in fighting any political wars,” she said. “This will not be an organization for political reform. Rather, we want to put people engaged in the business marketplace in touch with each other and with the opportunities that will arise in Cuba.”
Dues for corporations and individual memberships haven’t yet been announced, though corporate membership in AmCham Cuba will include a free subscription to CubaNews — as it did in the past. AmCham also plans to revive its series of monthly luncheon speakers.
“It’s going to be business-oriented, though we have no plans to lobby or advocate any particular position” Bartholomew said. “Right now, conditions permit companies to export food to Cuba on a cash-only basis. We’re quite prepared to carry their water, but there will come a day when the other side of the market comes into play.”
Asked what position, if any, AmCham Cuba might take with regard to U.S. companies whose properties were expropriated by the Castro regime and now have outstanding claims against Havana, Bartholomew said: “We would be guided by the practices of AmChams around the world, and at this point in time, we haven’t studied it enough to know how we would react if this issue came up."