CubaNews / August 2011
By Larry Luxner
One of the most luxurious resorts now on the drawing board in Cuba is being financed by a group of Canadian Indians who, until relatively recently, were paupers in their native land.
Standing Feather International — an Ottawa-based company formed by the Mohawk and Dene tribes — plans to sink $455 million into an upscale residential golfing community in eastern Cuba’s Holguín province.
The unusual partnership is the brainchild of SFI’s president, Vincent McComber, who grew up on the Kahnawake Mohawk reserve outside Montreal and ran a licensed tobacco retail outlet on a native reserve for years.
“The Cubans and first nations people view things in the same light,” McComber recently told Canada’s Globe & Mail. “We’re do-it-yourselfers. Life is hard, but not impossible.”
Chris Nicolas, the managing director of Standing Feather, said his first business contracts with the Cubans followed Fidel Castro’s 1992 speech about native rights on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ “extermination” of the Indians. He secured a deal to sell the Castro government native-made computer software, and eventually was asked if he knew anything about developing golf courses.
Nicolas and McComber got in touch with Graham Cooke, a well-known Montreal architect who has designed several championship courses on native land across Canada. The result is Estancias de Golf Loma Linda, a $455 million project sitting on a 211-hectare (520-acre) tract of land along Guardalavaca beach in the eastern province of Holguín.
How a group of once-impoverished indigenous people ended up bankrolling what could become Cuba’s ritziest golfing community is a story without precedent on this island.
“Unlike the United States, up until 1962, it was illegal for Canada’s Indians to actually go to court to ask for payment for [confiscated] lands,” Nicolas told CubaNews in a telephone interview from Ottawa.
“Since 1962, when Indians were finally declared human beings here in Canada, we’ve had the right to do that. Canadian Indians are now sitting on over $15 billion in funds, and have partial or complete control of 2.5 million square miles, or one-third of Canada’s land mass. So the Indian nations in Canada are building a lot of economic muscle,” he said.
“Land claims are being settled by this new conservative government, which has set a minimum of $150 million in land claims per year over the next five years. Many Indian tribes are putting their money completely in trusts, with investment for future generations. They’re rarely used for immediate needs.”
Looking for lucrative places to park their money, the Mohawk — which originate in southern Quebec and Ontario, and the Dene, originally from Canada’s Northwest Territories and northern prairie provinces — incorporated SFI specifically to invest in Cuba.
“The monies are from private individuals who are members, not from the nations themselves,” Nicolas explained. “If Canadians were ever to invest in a high-risk venture, which I doubt, they’d be welcome, but Canadians are notorious for wanting to invest only in blue-chip companies or commodities. SFI was formed solely for this joint venture. That’s all it was formed to do.”
Nicolas said that for most of its existence, his team has intentionally flown under the radar.
“We started negotiations in 2002 with Rumbos, before they became Palmares. Initially it was supposed to be two driving ranges,” explained Nicolas, who manages a family trust.
“We kept a very low profile until this past May, when we finally decided to go to press. Unlike many of the people we’ve met in Cuba doing similar developments, we felt it’s not right to put something on the table unless you actually have it, and we wanted to make sure we had it before we went public with it.”
What makes this project unique, he says, is that Standing Feather has permission to sell this property with the title in perpetuity.
“Forget about 99-year leases. The Cuban government has gone one better than China or Vietnam. Law Decree #273, which passed on Aug. 13, 2010, changed two articles in the Codigo Civil,” Nicolas told CubaNews.
“All the press attention was focused on Article 222.1, which dealt with leaseholds to 99 years. The press did not notice that Article 222.3 permits the government to give a state-controlled company the right to sell in perpetuity,” he said. “By ceding 1% of ownership and having the Cubans control 51% instead of a 50-50 split, we qualify for the right to sell in perpetuity. That was confirmed to us in Havana earlier this month.” Nicolas said he hopes construction will begin by the last quarter of 2012.
“Right now, we’re just trying to get the contract signed, and we hope that will happen in September or October of this year,” he said.
The resort itself is being billed as a residential community boasting with 1,200 private houses measuring up to 300 square meters, as well as a 170-room boutique five-star hotel.
“The pricing is being calculated right now, but we’re looking at the $400,000 to $700,000 range, and this is the low end,” he said. “These homes will be fully furnished, with a computer in every home linked to the Internet so that people can reserve their tables and tee times, and even order Canadian groceries delivered to their door.”
Nicolas said his team originally evaluated 15 sites across Cuba for both Rumbos and Cubanacán, “and we rejected all but three. When this site was offered to us, we jumped at it.”
Asked why his project is located so far from the others being planned by rival developers, Nicolas said that’s one of its strong points.
“The Varadero/Havana corridor is pretty saturated and we didn’t feel that the land in that Varadero corridor was suitable for golf courses,” he said. “Our evaluation was to shy away from that corridor. We felt it was too pedestrian. It’s no different than Miami, and for that special cache of Cuba, we feel the client and homebuyer is going to be much more at ease in a foreign setting that won’t seem like Disneyland.”
He added: “In the same way we’ve got the geographical distance, we can distance ourselves in terms of experience. Many of the other projects in much-higher volume areas will rely on transient traffic. We are aiming to build a five-star-plus community where people will feel at home and enjoy superlative services never before seen in Cuba.”
Nicolas explained that “this will be first and foremost a residential development. We’re building a real community, with a ‘bit of resort’ in the neighborhood — a very finely crafted, superbly distinctive resort with top-notch quality services and amenities.”
He said “our distinction will be quality of life. This site will be declared a Zona Especial de Desarrollo [special development zone], meaning we’ll be allowed to sell imported dairy, meat and produce delivered right to the door. Property taxes will be relatively low, and nothing will be all-inclusive. Everything is a la carte [except for the hotel]. You will get a discreet bill at the end of each month.”
The project is adjacent to the Paradisus Río de Oro and the Luna y Mares, both managed by Spain’s Grupo Sol Meliá.
Interestingly, SFI’s primary market is split between Canadians and South Americans — primarily Argentines, Brazilians, Venezuelans and Colombians with discretionary income.
“There’s a five-year construction cycle, and we’ll begin to sell real estate halfway through this. We’re looking at 2015, by which time the South American market will be giving North America a run for its money,” he said. “We expect to break even between Year 6 and Year 7, and returns will be over 20%.”
Nicolas said Holguín’s Frank País International Airport receives 46 overseas flights per week. Last year, the airport welcomed one million visitors, and the government hopes to double the number of available hotel rooms in the province by 2016.
“Our project will provide a truly unique immersion in Cuba,” Nicolas assured us. “The Guardalavaca district and Holguín province as a whole is absolutely beautiful, and we believe homeowners will pick up on that.”