Businesses look south toward a new Cuba

Fidel Castro is ailing; his brother Raúl is at the helm -- at least temporarily -- and that chain of events has set off another one on this side of the Florida Straits.

Businesses are revisiting Cuba plans -- many formulated in the early 1990s after the Soviet Union, Cuba's chief benefactor, collapsed.

Things were touch and go on the island then. Oil supplies dried up; the cities were dark due to power shortages; food was scarce; and speculation rose that the Cuban economy was on its last legs and the Castro brothers' days were numbered.

That, of course, gave rise to a cottage industry in South Florida: preparing to do business with the new Cuba.

Law firms looked into property and trademark rights of Cuban exiles whose companies and lands were expropriated by the Cuban government. Some people even supposedly "bought" property in Cuba -- though such purchases aren't officially recognized -- and others visited the island to prospect for business opportunities.

Political change was inevitable, many thought. But the Cuban government made economic adjustments, the United States passed the embargo-tightening Helms-Burton law, and the hope of renewed business contacts with Cuba faded.

Now with a perhaps more pragmatic Raúl Castro serving as interim president and prospects for Fidel Castro's return uncertain, companies -- large and small -- have started dusting off their Cuba plans.

While tightening up on travel to Cuba and some aspects of the embargo in recent years, the United States also has permitted the sale of U.S. farm products and pharmaceuticals and the import of Cuban art and music.

Some U.S. executives have embraced these opportunities and used them to gain a toehold in Cuban commerce, which they believe will only expand in coming years. Today's cover story, "Preparing for Cuba" (page 22), reports on current business as well as prospects for the future in key industries -- if the embargo is lifted.

Though we now appear to be in a cycle of leftist ascendancy in Latin America, alliances and old paradigms can change rapidly in today's world, and it's best to always be prepared.

Mimi Whitefield is business enterprise editor.