Prospecting In Cuba
October 2006, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine
By Jenn Holmes
With 80-year-old dictator Fidel Castro’s health in question, interest
within the United States has grown over what many see as Cuba’s
inevitable change in government – even if just to see his brother Raul
permanently assume power.
And outside of this nation’s sizeable Cuban expatriate community, few
want to know more than U.S. businesses eager to tap into the 11 million
consumers located just 90 miles off of Florida’s coast.
Mr. Castro maintains that when it comes to Uncle Sam, it will be
business as usual – or rather very little business as usual – in Havana
during his illness. But the U.S. State Department believes he has given
up day-to-day management of the island-state and his fade out creates a
time “fraught with possibility” for both nations.
Florida East Coast Industries – whose CEO is Havana-born Adolfo
Henriques – is in a unique position to pounce if ties can be resumed.
One of its businesses, the Florida East Coast Railway, is a regional
freight railroad that operates 351 miles of mainline track from
Jacksonville to Miami.
Miami-based investment manager Thomas J. Herzfeld says that the railroad
is anticipating a significant increase in the amount of freight going
through Florida once the embargo is lifted, and foresees a rail barge
operating to and from Cuba since the railways are compatible there.
Other big American companies eyeing a re-opened Cuba are in the metals,
sugar, and tobacco industries, although there’s certain to be a spurt of
investment and entrepreneurship from expatriates eager to do business in
One big obstacle will be the United States’ insistence on compensation
for U.S. assets confiscated by the Cuban government when Mr. Castro took
over. That potential bill is estimated by University of Miami’s Cuban
Transition Project to now range between $6 billion and $20 billion.
In just one example of how sticky that situation can be, one Cuban exile
family has lobbied the U.S. government to punish a Spanish hotel chain,
Grupo Sol Meliá, which built inns on property the family had lost to the
communist government. Interestingly, family members were not American
citizens at the time of their loss. The claim by the Sanchez-Hill family
of South Florida already is an irritant in United States-European Union
relations, and suggests the Pandora’s box that will inevitably spring
open once Cuban-American relations start to normalize.
Money manager Mr. Herzfeld has been planning for an open Cuba since the
early 1990s, Castro or no. Barron’s Online described him as “early to
the party – very early.” His firm’s Herzfeld Caribbean Basin Fund
(NASDAQ: CUBA) operates with a built-in contingency plan should trade
agreements open Cuba to his investors.
Mr. Herzfeld saw Cuba and the Caribbean as emerging markets that would
allow him and his investors to gain pole position when the race to
“Since we didn’t know when the embargo would be lifted, we decided to
make it Caribbean,” Mr. Herzfeld says. “We saw it as an opportunity to
be in position to be the first fund to invest in free Cuba.
“Our strategy 13 years ago was that there is no way to predict the
embargo lifting, and we didn’t just want to sit on the money.”
Managed by his Thomas J. Herzfeld Advisors, Inc. firm, the closed-end
fund has been successful thus far – its original investors are ahead at
least 100 percent, according to Mr. Herzfeld, although it’s
capitalization is still a tiny $13 million. (A closed-end fund is like a
mutual fund that trades on a stock exchange.)
The fund’s holdings must meet two basic tests: Companies have to do well
even if there’s no lifting of the embargo, and if trade ensues,
companies need to do additional business. Currently, approximately half
of the companies are in the U.S. with the rest in the Caribbean basin.
His biggest investment is Florida East Coast Industries. He also cites
cruise lines Carnival and Royal Caribbean as companies that also have
everything to gain from an open Cuba – mainly more options for customers.
What’s more, Mr. Herzfeld says the firm is planning a second fund,
initially coined The Cuba Fund, which won’t launch until the embargo
situation changes. While he wouldn’t give details, and no prospectus
exists, it’s going to be larger than his existing fund to capitalize on
all of the new businesses that could be created in a democratic Cuba.
“It’s not unreasonable to believe many stocks in our portfolio will
rally [if trade with Cuba ensues],” says Mr. Herzfeld. “We’ll take some
of those profits and look at ventures to invest with Cuban Americans.”
The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 is the biggest hurdle for businesses
looking to crack the Cuban market. The law stipulates that Cuban
democracy is a necessary element to any trade relationship between the
U.S. and Cuba. The law’s reach is wide – Helms-Burton is the legislation
the Sanchez-Hills are using to bludgeon Grupo Sol Meliá, and the United
States has long tried to warn off any foreign investors sniffing around
And, although both the House and Senate have voted in recent years to
overturn a ban an American travel to Cuba and to allow the sale of
American goods to Cuba, President George W. Bush is maintaining a hard
line toward the regime. In June, he suspended operations of three major
remittance agencies – La Perla del Caribe, Transeair Travel and Uno
Remittance Inc. – to stifle the flow of hard currency into the
In July, the administration’s Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba
issued a report that pledged an additional $80 million to support Cuban
opposition to the regime as well as to push for a free media. The
multi-agency commission, co-chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice and Havana-born U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez,
recommended initiating assistance to Cuba after a transition government
took over. Under current U.S. law that government cannot include Raul
Meanwhile, some are starting to fear the U.S. is dallying while global
competitors from places like China and Venezuela are stealing a march on
the Cuban market.
REAPING WHAT WE GROW
One of them is Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-TX), who for years backed the trade
embargo. Now, fresh from a July trip to Cuba to scope out trade
opportunities for his district’s port of Corpus Christi, he recalls Mr.
Castro asking, “You are members of Congress. Why do you do business with
China and Russia, but you don’t do business with me, and I’m only 30
The congressman agrees on some levels, asking rhetorically, “Why are we
out of the ballgame?
“There’s a lot that Cuba needs to do with their regime, but when you see
what deals they’re making. … God forbid they decide to block the Gulf of
Of course, the congressman has reason to worry about that. Corpus
Christi and 16 other Gulf ports are interested in increasing trade with
Cuba (the current agreement allows for the U.S. sale of agricultural
goods and medicine).
“It [trade with Cuba] means a lot of jobs for the area, for farmers,
ranchers, and cattle people,” Mr. Ortiz says. “This opened up a new
avenue for the farmers, and they can now stay in the game.”
According to the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, U.S. agricultural
exports to Cuba reached $380 million in 2004, the highest level since
passage of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000
that authorized the resumption of U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba. The
U.S.-Cuba Trade Association estimates the total amount exported to Cuba
since 2000 as nearly $2 billion.
Even that relatively small effort involves more than 35 states that have
entered into agreements to sell American products to Cuba, which by law
Cuba has to pay in advance. Interest is growing. In August, New Mexico’s
Navajo Agricultural Products Industry signed a letter of intent to sell
produce to Cuba, New Mexico’s first such agreement with the island.
“We cannot let other countries come in there and build businesses at the
expense of us, “says Mr. Ortiz.
“I’ve always voted for the embargo, but now that I went there and saw
what is happening, all these other countries in the middle of it … we
need to be friendlier toward Cuba. I’m going to change my vote. God says
he enjoys when a sinner repents.”
1898 – Two months after an explosion sank the USS Maine in Havana
Harbor, the United States declares war on Spain. Spain grants Cuba’s
independence as part of the treaty ending the Spanish-American War.
1901 – Provisions known as the Platt Amendment are incorporated into the
Cuban Constitution, thereby making Cuba essentially a protectorate of
the United States. The amendment is subsequently repealed in 1934,
although the United States maintains control of Guantanamo Bay naval base.
1958 – Fidel Castro’s guerilla army forces dictator Fulgencio Batista
and his regime to flee Cuba on New Year’s Eve.
1960 – Cuba nationalizes U.S. corporate assets, and the United States
responds by imposing a partial embargo excluding food and medicine.
1961 – CIA-trained Cuban exiles attack Castro forces in the Bay of Pigs
invasion. Its failure initiated a total U.S. embargo on Cuba. A ban on
travel is introduced for all U.S. citizens.
1975 – The United States announces that it will allow foreign
subsidiaries of U.S. companies to sell in Cuba. It will also stop
penalizing other foreign nations from doing business with Cuba.
1977 – President Carter lifts the travel and spending ban for U.S. citizens.
1980 – Fidel Castro relaxes emigration restrictions resulting in a
massive migration of Cubans to the United States – more than 125,000
people – via the Muriel Boat Lift.
1981 – Newly elected President Ronald Reagan announces a tightening of
the embargo. The following year, the Reagan Administration
re-establishes the travel and spending ban for U.S. citizens.
1992 – The Cuban Democracy Act passes in Congress, prohibiting
foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba and
blocks family remittances from the United States to Cuba.
1996 – President Bill Clinton signs the Helms-Burton Act, which makes
the Cuban embargo law, but more importantly allows U.S. businesses and
citizens to sue foreign investors who profit from expropriated U.S.
assets seized by the Cuban government.
2000 – President Clinton relaxes the trade ban to allow the sale of
agriculture and medicine to Cuba for humanitarian purposes. In 2005, the
U.S. Treasury Department issues a rule requiring Cuba to pay for U.S.
imports up front.
2006 – June 5: The Bush Administration suspends operations of remittance
agencies to Cuba as part of its intensifying economic war against the
2006 – August 1: Fidel Castro hands over power to his brother Raúl due
to an emergency surgery. It is the first time that Fidel is known to
have ceded power since he won control of Cuba in 1959.
Source: HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine and Hispanicbusiness.com, Copyright
(c) 2006 All Rights Reserved.