American businesses flood Cuban trade fair
Alan Gomez, USA TODAY 1:14 a.m. EST November 2, 2015
HAVANA — It was an unusual sight in this communist island that for
decades was barred from importing most U.S. goods: an American-owned,
American-made tractor, ready for sale.
The farm tractor was built by Alabama-based Cleber LLC, and its owners
plan to display the red model at Cuba’s International Trade
Fair starting Monday on the outskirts of Havana.
The annual fair will be the first one since the United States and Cuba
announced in December they would re-establish diplomatic relations after
a 50-year freeze, a change that opened trade opportunities
and kick-started a rush of American companies hoping to get access to
the long-isolated island.
The tractor, which the owners call the “Oggún” in homage to the
Afro-Cuban Santeria spirit of metal work, also provides a valuable
lesson to companies hoping to be the first in their fields to get into Cuba.
Rather than simply offer to sell the American-made tractors to Cubans,
Cleber proposes to shift construction from Paint Rock, Ala., to the
island, using Cuban workers and Cuban materials, within five years.
“From the get-go, the Cubans have said they want investment in Cuba,
they don’t want exports to Cuba,” said Saul Berenthal, 71, who
co-founded Cleber just weeks after December’s announcement. “That gives
us an advantage.”
This week’s trade fair will feature dozens of American
companies exploring trade opportunities, from giants such as Cargill and
Caterpillar to smaller enterprises such as Cleber and the Oregon-based
Ninkasi Brewery Co. looking to sell its beer to the island.
The U.S. maintains an economic embargo on Cuba, a wide-ranging set of
restrictions that only Congress can change. But since opening up
relations with Cuba, President Obama has used his executive authority to
expand the few trade openings the embargo allows.
The Treasury and Commerce departments have published regulations
expanding the ability of U.S. businesses to sell food and medicine to
Cuba, as well as equipment to improve the agricultural, medical,
construction and telecommunications industries on the island.
That has led to so much interest that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will
host the first board meeting of its U.S.-Cuba Business Council near the
trade fair this week.
Jodi Bond, the chamber’s vice president of the Americas, already made
several trips to Cuba and held meetings with President Raúl Castro and
his staff. She said the island still has a long way to catch up to the
regulatory changes approved by the Obama administration.
She said the island’s banking system is not yet ready for full American
investment, its dual-currency system needs to end, and its foreign
investment laws need work.
As American businesses wait for those changes, she said companies need
to learn how to approach the Cuban government if they hope to sign any
deals. Just as Cleber is focusing on providing jobs to Cubans, Bond said
it’s important for U.S. businesses to offer things like training for
Cuba’s emerging entrepreneurial class. She said 98% of the population is
educated, but few have received formal business training.
“And who does the best entrepreneurial work in the world? U.S.
businesses,” Bond said. “So we have significant expertise in how
entrepreneurs can grow a business and grow the island to a place of
Part of the promise of this week’s trade show is to teach American
business owners how to work with Cuba, starting with something as simple
as getting there.
Alex Procopio, a San Diego-based businessman who has sold food products
to Cuba for more than a decade, said he had lined up eight U.S.
companies to travel with him to the trade fair. After they struggled to
book flights through a complicated charter process and reserve hotel
rooms in a country that doesn’t accept U.S.-issued credit cards, he said
seven companies dropped out.
“Cuba is still the forbidden fruit, it’s still that hard-to-get-to
island,” Procopio said. “That’s part of its charm.”
Scott Gilbert said the fair is also an opportunity for U.S. companies
to meet Cuban government officials.
Gilbert is the attorney who helped broker the release of contractor Alan
Gross, who was freed after five years in a Cuban prison as part of last
year’s deal to begin normalizing relations with Cuba. Gilbert is now
advising companies about dealing with the Cubans.
“Americans who are used to coming into a country and moving things very
quickly, they are being fairly assertive and aggressive and finding that
doesn’t work well,” he said. “You’ve got to understand their situation,
understand the dynamic and try to work within it to do the best that you
Part of that learning process is finding out what the Cubans want.
Jim Moran, a former Democratic congressman from Virginia who now works
at a D.C. law firm, recently visited Cuba with a group of former members
of Congress. He said he felt a “tangible sense of expectations and
aspirations” from people in Havana, but he learned how cautious
government officials remain.
Since Castro took over as leader from his brother, Fidel, the island has
allowed Cubans to own and sell their homes and cars for the first time,
approved the sale of computers and cellphones to citizens and created a
class of nearly 500,000 private entrepreneurs who are figuring out how
to run their own businesses.
Despite those changes, Moran said Americans should not expect to walk
into a free-wheeling capitalist culture.
“They don’t want to just be a satellite economy of the United States,”
he said. “They’re very much aware of the inequalities here, how a small
fraction of our population owns most of our wealth and earns most of our
income. They’re frustrated with communism … but they want everybody to
count, and they don’t want the marginalization of large portions of
“They’re looking for something in-between,” Moran said.
Source: American businesses flood Cuban trade fair –