The San Juan Star / September 3, 2001
By Larry Luxner
HAVANA -- Israel is the only country in the world that has consistently backed the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba whenever the issue comes up in the United Nations.
Ironically, Israel is also becoming one of the leading foreign investors in Cuba, with private Jewish businessmen involving themselves in everything from Cuban citrus exports to real-estate projects.
Now, in a move sure to infuriate Cuban exile groups and the Bush administration, a group of Israeli investors is sinking tens of millions of dollars into what they're calling Cuba's first "intelligent office building complex" -- a suburban Havana office park that, when completed, will consist of 18 six-floor office buildings located on 180,000 square meters (nearly two million square feet).
The Miramar Trade Center (MTC) is the brainchild of Inmobiliaria Monte Barreto S.A., a joint venture between Cuban state agency Cubalse S.A. and Grupo BM, an Israeli entity headed by former Mossad spy chief Rafi Eitan.
Inmobiliaria Monte Barreto's chairman is Enrique Rottenberg, an Argentine Jew living in Cuba. Rottenberg wouldn't say how much his company is investing in the project, and declined to be interviewed by this newspaper, saying it was not in his interest for the company's activities to be publicized. He wouldn't even hand out his business card for fear of having his name mentioned in the U.S. press.
One reason Rottenberg doesn't want to talk to the press is fear of running afoul of U.S. law. According to veteran Cuba-watchers, Grupo BM has already received warning letters under Title IV of the Helms-Burton act, which denies U.S. visas to foreigners who invest in "confiscated" Cuban property. Those warnings were apparently in connection with its citrus operations at Jagüey Grande, where in the 1999-2000 season some 422,000 tons of oranges and grapefruit were harvested. About 360,000 tons were processed into concentrate and juice for export. Grupo BM has reportedly invested over $20 million in its Jagüey Grande operations, located 100 kilometers east of Havana, in Matanzas province.
Yet according to a news bulletin published by the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council Inc. in New York, the Miramar Trade Center project is worth some $200 million. Because of the sensitive nature of foreign investment in Cuba, it was impossible to confirm this number with any other source. Rottenberg isn't the only one not talking; neither Eitan himself or any Cuban government official would agree to be interviewed for this article.
In any event, the Miramar Trade Center is hard to miss, given its rather prominent location along Tercera Avenida between Calles 70 and 80. That puts it practically within walking distance of some of Havana's most important hotels: the Meliá Habana, the Neptuno, the Tritón, the Comodoro, the Novotel Miramar and the Panorama, which is still under construction. In addition, dozens of state-run trading companies, foreign firms, the International Conference Center, many embassies and the Ministry for Foreign Investment and Economic Cooperation are located nearby.
A glossy brochure provided by Rottenberg says the MTC will consist of 18 office buildings with a total rentable area of 180,000 square meters (1.94 million square feet), and 70,000 square meters of covered parking facilities for more than 2,000 cars.
The complex is to be built in five phases, according to the pamphlet. Phase I consists of two six-story buildings, one known as the Edificio Jerusalén and the other called the Edificio Habana. Completed in January 2000, the buildings are already fully occupied and have 27,000 square meters of construction and covered parking for 200 cars.
The Edificio Jerusalén, adorned with Israeli art in the hallways of the first floor, is about as modern as any office building in Havana, and on par with what a visitor might find along Brickell Avenue in Miami.
To further attract investors, Monte Barreto S.A. promises to offer the latest in technology, including "transmission of voice and data through a system of Category 5 structured cables, ideal for the connection of power phone and computer networks; central climatization by a smart design of variable air volume that makes it very comfortable and efficient; fire detection and detection of intruders through a smart switchboard, and electrical system that guarantees a stable supply of energy."
Work on Phase II, which contains four buildings, began in September 2000. Two of these buildings will have five floors, with views of Quinta Avenida, while two other buildings with six floors will offer views of 3ra Avenida. From the third floor, the buildings can offer areas of between 50 and 7,000 square meters per floor.
Phases III, IV and V -- each containing four buildings -- will begin in 2004, 2005 and 2006, respectively, with each phase requiring two and a half years to complete construction.
Among MTC's advantages, says the pamphlet, are "a privileged position in the center of Miramar with fast access to the main urban roads; the possibility to rent only the necessary space for your office requirements, and design flexibility to create and modify your office on request by using removable light wall panels."
The project was designed by Cuba's Empresa de Diseño de La Habana, in conjunction with ZP International Inc., whose credits include Toronto's Eaton Center and London's Canary Wharf.
Interestingly, the Israeli government -- which has been quite vocal about its support of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba -- has long distinguished between official ties with Cuba, which it doesn't have, and private Israeli investment, which it says it cannot control.
Yet the government itself is quietly helping Israeli companies invest there.
According to John Kavulich III, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, the Israel Foreign Trade Risk Insurance Corp. (IFTRIC) now provides commercial and political risk insurance for Israeli companies hoping to invest in Cuba. In 1999, IFTRIC reported insuring short-term transactions worth more than $3 billion, of which some 10% was directed toward developing countries.