With just months left before the end of the Obama administration, the clock is ticking for new business and regulatory overtures toward Cuba.
A Miami business conference organized by Datamyne and NEXCO, an international trade organization, Thursday reviewed events since the United States and Cuba began the process of normalizing relations Dec. 17, 2014, and explored what might be accomplished before the end of President Barack Obama’s term.
While two companies reported progress, other speakers expressed frustration that business engagement with Cuba is not proceeding as rapidly as some had hoped.
Leonor Villanueva, of Delta Air Lines, said the airline planned to begin daily service from Miami to Havana Dec. 1. It also plans to offer Havana service from Atlanta and New York’s JFK airport.
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And Saul Berenthal, co-founder of Cleber — an Alabama company that has submitted a proposal to the Cuban government to manufacture light tractors and construction equipment in Cuba’s Mariel Special Economic Development Zone — said the company recently received a U.S. license that would allow it to sell a wide range of U.S.-made construction and agricultural components and parts to the Cuban government.
If Cuba approves the manufacturing project, it will mesh nicely with Berenthal’s sales plan. “What good is a tractor if you can’t sell the implements to make it work?” he asked.
But he said he had no idea when the ventures might come to fruition because the Cuban government works at its own pace. Echoing the words of Cuban leader Raúl Castro on economic changes taking place on the island, he said: “Sin prisa pero sin pausa (without rushing but without stopping).
Attendees at the conference, “Preparing for Trade with Cuba,” at the Pullman Miami Airport Hotel, said “preparing” is still the operative word when it comes to U.S. business ventures and trade with Cuba.
Other than the advent of regularly scheduled flights between the United States and Cuba, several deals in the telecom and hospitality industries and Stonegate Bank’s banking relationship with the Cuban government, few U.S. companies have struck deals with Cuba since the rapprochement.
The embargo remains in place, but U.S. regulatory changes under the Obama administrations have made it easier for American companies to do business with Cuba.
John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said there have been dozens of offers by U.S. companies that want to do business in Cuba under the new rules. “Some have been told no, but others, they’ve just heard nothing,” he said. “This is not like pouring water; it is like pouring molasses.”
“By our calculation, 3,000 representatives of U.S. companies have been to Cuba,” he said. But most are just testing the waters and haven’t traveled with a business visa or met with Cuban officials, he said.
The problem, he said, is the Cuban government is “saying yes to the interest of U.S. companies but they’re saying no to a commercial relationship with U.S. companies.
“We’re running out of time. Cuba will never have a more enthusiastic negotiating partner than President Obama,” Kavulich said.
Lee Ann Evans, the senior policy adviser for Engage Cuba, encouraged companies to continue applying for licenses to do business with Cuba.
The more business ties are established between the U.S. and Cuba, “the harder it will be to roll back the relationship” with Cuba, regardless of who is in the White House next year, she said.
Evans also said another set of regulatory changes that would make it easier to do business with Cuba will be released soon.
Kavulich said those new regulations should come out as soon as possible so all parties have time to adjust, accept and implement them. “President Obama should go all in … and leave only for his successor the shepherding of a legislative agenda,” he said.
“I predict nothing will happen with big American business in Cuba until the embargo is lifted,” said Berenthal. But he also said he thought that could happen as soon as next year.