Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Society of International Business Fellows Trip Report

Cubans ripe for economic opportunity

Liberalized travel rules for U.S. citizens give glimpse of island's beauty

1:36 AM, Feb. 14, 2012 

I was prepared for the travel hassles (mostly in Miami) and for the revolutionary slogans and signs, even the lack of toilet paper, but my most compelling impression of Havana upon arrival there for the first time a couple of weeks ago was the beauty, and poor condition, of the historic buildings.

This is a European-style city on a grand scale (think Barcelona without the beaches and first-class restaurants), but it was sad to see such a wonderful built environment literally crumbling. Yet, the spirit of the people and the vibrancy of the culture made our five-day sojourn a very pleasant experience.

Our group, members of the Society of International Business Fellows (SIBF), consisting mostly of business people from the Southern U.S., traveled under the aptly named “people-to-people” visa that is part of the recent travel liberalization under the Obama administration. This visa allows U.S. citizens traveling through the auspices of licensed tour operators to engage in humanitarian, educational and cultural exchanges with the Cuban population. As tourism grows, there will be additional resources for badly needed renovations; tourism revenue is dedicated to this purpose in Old Havana. The Cuban people are optimistic that they will be able to rebuild the city, but we were not given official timetables or budgets for the work.

Despite the dilapidated surroundings, our hotel was very nice, the meals offered little variety, but mojitos were prevalent as we followed in the footsteps of Papa Hemingway, reveled in the fabulous music, art and theater, rode in ’50s-vintage U.S.-made cars, and enjoyed great cigars, with a warm welcome afforded us everywhere.

Developing “people-to-people” relationships with our American neighbors to the south was a truly rewarding and special part of the trip; though it is hard to say if or when those relationships will become helpful in the development of business opportunities for U.S. firms. Lack of Internet access and restrictions against photographing living conditions testify that Cuba is still a closed society. There are a few small, privately owned businesses. Even the great cigar companies are state-owned and move production among each other’s factories. Some foreign interests, mostly Chinese and Venezuelan, but also some French and Canadian companies, are able to do business there, usually in joint ventures with the government.

There is a will and determination among the Cuban people that, if unleashed, could provide a spark for economic growth and opportunity. For the most part, however, people work for the government at very low wages, but with free, apparently good-quality health care, and without taxes and insurance. There is a shadow economy in which supplemental incomes are earned that demonstrates the initiative of the people.

Opening of the economy is occurring incrementally — individuals have recently been given the freedom to buy and sell homes, for example. Significant obstacles remain, of course, including history, politics and hard feelings, but under proper conditions, the human and natural resources of Cuba could support a new revolution — one of economic opportunity with improved quality of life and hope for the future.

J. Chase Cole is an attorney with Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis.


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