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Executives gather in Miami to map out cohesive post-embargo Cuba strategy
CubaNews / April 2009

By Larry Luxner

On a beautiful spring afternoon late last month, 22 members of the hardline exile group Vigilia Mambisa gathered along Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami, waving Cuban flags and shouting anti-Castro slogans at anyone who would listen.

Problem is, hardly anyone was listening.

Instead, the focus of these aging exiles’ rage — the 100 or so participants of Jon Bedard’s one-day Cuba Trade Expo — sat at conference tables inside the nearby Hotel Inter-Continental, eagerly soaking up the latest news on U.S. policy toward Cuba and useful tips on how to do business with the Castro regime.

“They make some kind of connection be-tween us and al-Qaeda that I can’t quite understand,” Bedard told delegates, some of whom paid $795 each to attend the Mar. 20 seminar.

The Massachusetts businessman, far from being annoyed at the protesters, seemed to rather enjoy his lunchtime exchange with the Castro-haters, some of whom accused organizers, speakers and attendees — including this reporter — of being “communists” and “shameless collaborators” of the regime in Havana.

It was among the most colorful moments of the day, and it illustrated an important point about South Florida’s changing demographics: in a major metro area that’s home to more than 900,000 people of Cuban origin, not even two dozen showed up to protest an event aimed at promoting business ties in Cuba.

Ten years ago, holding such a conference in Miami would have been unthinkable. But the Cuba Trade Expo was business as usual — with representation from Crowley Maritime Corp., the US-Cuba Trade Association, Ft. Lauderdale-based Splash Tropical Drinks, United Americas Shipping, Mexican cement conglomerate Cemex and other companies large and small.

A few people even flew up from Cuba for the event, such as Philippe Colombani, economic adviser at the French Embassy in Havana, and Matt Pickles, publisher of Cuba Absolutely.

Miami lawyer Tony Zamora talked about hotels and golf courses in the pipeline, energy expert Jorge Piñón discussed Cuba’s oil and gas future, and the University of Florida’s Bill Messina analyzed Cuba’s agriculture sector.

One thing everyone agreed on is that dramatic change in relations between Washington and Havana seems just around the corner.

But not everyone agreed that such change would be for the better.

“We are here today because of a small group of fewer than 5,000 individuals who donate money on a regular basis to a PAC at a rate of $1 million every election cycle to continue this policy — which has no valid justification from an international relations standpoint, or even the national interests of the U.S.,” said Tony Martínez, a New York lawyer who opposes sanctions against Cuba.

“Because of that, Congress still represents the money behind the pro-embargo faction as opposed to the majority of Americans who want full relations with Cuba and the lifting of all travel restrictions.”

Not so, argued José Azel, who works with the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.

“It makes no sense to offer unilateral, un-conditional concessions to a government like Cuba beyond some initiatives,” said Azel. “When you sit down at a negotiating table with an adversary, if that opponent offers you a unilateral concession, you put it in your pocket and say ‘thank you very much’ and move to the next demand on your list. If we were tomorrow to completely change U.S. foreign policy, unilaterally and unconditionally, the Cubans would simply pocket those concessions and make further demands.”

Apart from the pros and cons of the embargo, the fact is that U.S. food exporters can and already are doing business with the regime. Last year, shipments of U.S. agricultural commodities to state-run Alimport came to $710 million, up from $437 million in 2007.

Mark Entwistle, Canada’s ambassador to Cuba in the 1990s and now a global business consultant, cautioned that despite recent optimism over Raúl Castro’s limited reforms, no real “transition” is taking place in Cuba.

“Reform in my opinion is probably too grandiose a term — which we use because we like it. The Cuban leadership has always been marked by a high level of pragmatic adaptation. They will continue to make tactical ad-justments to make their economy work more efficiently. This certainly implies structural changes to encourage market efficiencies, market liberalization and a general openness to direct foreign investment,” he explained.

“But the Cubans are not radical reformers with any desire or perceived need to change their basic approach to doing things,” said Entwhistle. “They are remarkably immune to any sense of outside pressure, so a lot of the arguments that swirl around the Cuba issue are frankly a waste of time, because they’re disconnected from reality.”

As such, the ex-diplomat said that no matter what happens in Cuba, U.S. businessmen should expect a statist economy with a foreign investment control regime firmly in place. “Cuba is not an empty vessel waiting breathlessly to be filled by American products and services,” he said. “After 50 years, there’s now a strong presence of European, Canadian, Chilean and Israeli companies. Needless to say, the embargo is wholly unilateral, and Cuba is not an isolated or backward country.”

Entwistle offered his audience four pieces of what he called “quite practical” advice:

“First, there is no substitute for careful planning and hard work. There will be no slam-dunk for American business in Cuba. Two, take nothing for granted. Cubans are price-driven. Cuba has turned to U.S. suppliers, but it could just as easily turn away if they were to get presumptuous on price or delivery.”

Third, he said, “don’t assume the Cubans will do any deal on the basis of available capital,” and fourth, “treat the Cuban market with the same professionalism as you would treat any market in the world.”

Added Colombani, the French Embassy adviser: “It’s not going to be easy to marry again after a 50-year divorce, though as Raúl said, everything is negotiable but sovereignty.”

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