Miami developer and arts patron Jorge Pérez, chairman of The Related Group, recently returned from the Havana Biennial art festival. It was his second trip to the island.
“We’ve been trying to open the gates of communication between Havana and Miami through art, which is apolitical most of the time: It doesn’t have anything to do with politics and is only an exchange of ideas,” he said in an interview with el Nuevo Herald.
Here is a translated excerpt from that interview.
Q. You’re helping Cuban artists “break the ice” in regards to U.S.-Cuba relations?
A. First, it’s magnificent for Cuban artists to be recognized internationally. Curators, museum heads, gallery owners from all over the world, attended the Biennial. The Galeria Continuo, an Italian gallery among the best in the world, is going to set up an office in Havana. They represent great international artists, also Carlos Garaicoa, who is one of the Cuban artists who has found the most success outside of the island. For Cuban artists, it’s very important. We bought several pieces for the PAMM, nothing political, very abstract.
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Q. Stephen Ross, who co-founded The Related Group with you, made headlines upon his return to Cuba and his announcement that he didn’t see great investing opportunities there. Do you share this opinion?
A. Neither Steve Ross nor myself held any meetings with Cuban officials to decide or learn if they’re promoting real estate or not. Those were just impressions from what he saw in Havana. What Steve said is, it will be a long time before he invests in Cuba because the infrastructure is in such bad condition.
Q. What would have to happen so that a group such as yours would decide to invest in Cuba?
A. I have a somewhat different opinion from Steve Ross. I think that countries and cities can change in a very rapid way. That’s what’s happening in Eastern Europe. If they opened the Cuban market completely, there could be changes quickly. As of now, even if I tell you that it’s good or bad to invest, it’s impossible to invest because it’s illegal. If you’re an American company, you can’t invest because of the embargo and because the Cuban government doesn’t allow private investments in that sector. If I wanted to sell condominiums in Cuba, which I don’t, I wouldn’t be able to be the owner of the property, so I wouldn’t be able to sell them.
I can’t even buy a house, so to talk about investing is something that right now doesn’t make sense because many things have to happen: first, for relations to open completely — and they haven’t even opened embassies yet; after that, for laws to be created for American investments to be able to become a reality. I wish that could be done quickly, but the truth is that it’s not something I see in the near future.
Personally, what I would like the most is to work on a project that would aid the historic rehabilitation of Havana. It’s a shame and it gives me tremendous sadness to see the precious buildings, to see a city, which could be the most beautiful in Latin America, falling apart and with very little money for renovations. I’d like a nonprofit to do something to help in that rehabilitation, which is so necessary.
Q. Do you have any plan designed for that rehabilitation?
A. No, we go to Cuba to see art, to immerse ourselves in art and in the people. With all the difficulties that there are, the people have always been kind to us. They treat you in a spectacular way; you feel at home. You go to other places in South America and Asia — especially where there’s a lot of poverty — and you’re looking at a house and they immediately close the door. In Cuba, they tell you come inside and the houses are in a state of disrepair and people give you a cup of coffee. They’re so amicable and it makes me feel so much pride to have Cuban ancestry.
I would love to be able to help, once relations between the countries open up, to be able to help in Cuba’s development and do so without making any money.
Q. Would the luxury hotel industry have potential in Cuba?
A. I think that if they allowed it, it would end tourism in the rest of the Caribbean because it has beautiful beaches, a polite people, an exceptional landscape, some of the most beautiful architecture in the Americas. It has everything tourists want.
The embargo doesn’t affect the United States, not even minimally; all of Cuba’s economy is smaller than that of Miami-Dade County, and the ones who suffer the most are Cubans. If you talk to them in the street, they’re the ones most interested in the opening of a free market in their country.
Q. Have you thought about how you can help re-urbanize Havana?
A. Yes, I’ve thought about it a lot. Like I told one of my friends, “I wish they would let me be the developer for all of this. I think I could change Havana in 10 or 20 years.”
Q. Many people are concerned that populations will be displaced in the process of urbanizing Havana.
A. Every time there are investments, there will be those who lose out. But I’m a capitalist and I believe that free investments are the best way to generate jobs and regenerate Havana. If the government didn’t want to lose the properties, they could do a long-term lease. Whether they’re going to change laws to allow this, that I don’t know. I’m not involved in politics but I would love for it to happen. I’ve opposed the embargo for a long time. I think it doesn’t help anyone except for the Cuban government and certain political sectors in Miami. It damages the Cuban people.
Q. This is the second time you’ve visited Cuba. What were the greatest changes between your first trip in 2012 and your recent visit?
A. There’s good and bad. The good: a lot of private industry, more little places to eat, more little hotels. The bad: too much destruction. Visiting is both happy and sad at the same time, but I love to go, I love to go dancing there. We went to the House of Music, to a small but very impressive jazz place. There are problems in those places because there’s a slew of women standing outside them who I imagine that for a little amount of money … those are problems that happen in poverty.
Q. But with this level of poverty, luxury condominiums seem to be part of a faraway future?
A. If they opened things up and I could build a luxury condominium in Vedado, I would sell them in two hours here in Miami. Cubans in Miami would be the first to buy. In Miami, 80 percent of the people we sell to are foreigners. Havana is a city very similar to Miami. … There’s good music, good theater, good ballet.
Jorge M. Pérez
Position: Founder, with Stephen M. Ross, of The Related Companies.
Personal: Married to Darlene Pérez; has four children.
Education: Bachelor of arts from Long Island University, C.W. Post Campus; master’s from University of Michigan.
Also: He is the author of “Powerhouse Principles: The Ultimate Blueprint for Real Estate Success in an Ever-Changing Market,” which came out in 2009.