Wealth of talent has foreigners eager to pounce on unknown artists

From Celia Cruz to Wifredo Lam, music and art have figured among Cuba's most famed exports through the decades.

Songs and paintings still count among the most popular products from the island, these days with tunes from bands like Los Van Van and paintings from artists such as Kacho.

The Cuban government has long recognized its trove of creative talent, and artists enjoy special status among Cuban citizens.

Since the early '90s, artists have been able to travel overseas, sign contracts with foreign distributors, sell their works abroad -- even in the United States -- and keep a portion of the revenue their sales generate.

Most well-known Cuban artists already have representation deals with overseas art galleries and record labels, but that doesn't mean U.S.-based entrepreneurs aren't preparing to storm the island to hunt for undiscovered talent and works in the event of an end to the embargo.

"I hope to be the first one, " says Ramón Cernuda of Cernuda Art in Coral Gables. He represents 12 contemporary artists on the island and would like to open a gallery in Havana as soon as he's legally able.

"These societies in the vortex of change generate incredible artistic movements, and there is a thirst for art in the post-modern world, " Cernuda says.

On the music side, entrepreneurs also see a competitive scenario but say that although many performers already have recording contracts, that doesn't rule out new deals.

"There's plenty of room, " says Hugo Cancio, chief executive of Fuego Entertainment in Miami. "Nobody's signing long-term contracts with anybody anymore."

Cancio's company has formed an exploratory committee with Wall Street analysts and interested investors to look into opportunities, including extensive music publishing catalogs and film libraries owned by the government.

Likely to bubble to the surface: legal disputes over back royalties for U.S.-based Cuban artists whose music has been licensed to European agencies by the Cuban government, Cancio predicts.

"The potential transformation is huge, " he says.