Peter Quinter knew he was onto something when an overflow crowd showed up to a legal conference he organized in Orlando.
A big turnout in Miami? Sure. But Central Florida?
The topic of that Florida Bar gathering in the fall of 2014 was Cuba, and the turnout was so strong that Quinter got a little carried away when he took the microphone that day. Let’s make this Cuba conference an annual event, he said, and have it in a different city each year. We can do Orlando, Tampa, Miami — and Havana.
“I just threw it out there,” Quinter recalled from a conference room on the 32nd floor of the Miami office of Gray Robinson, where he is chairman of the international-trade group. “I thought it was a dream.”
The crowd loved the idea, but Quinter, a former Customs official who has been in private practice since the 1990s, considered it wishful thinking.
Then, a few weeks later, President Barack Obama announced a new diplomatic embrace of Cuba. And in May 2015, Quinter led a delegation of about two dozen Florida Bar members on a tour of Cuba.
The 51-year-old has been back a second time, and plans a third trip in June for a presentation on the U.S. embargo during a meeting of the Inter-American Bar Association in Havana. Meanwhile, he’s fielding a surge of client inquiries and would-be deals tied to Cuba, a nation that suddenly finds itself a top international target of almost every industry in Florida.
Carnival plans cruises from Miami to Havana in May. Miami condo king Jorge Pérez mingled with Obama during the president’s recent state visit there. PortMiami is planning for Cuba-bound ferries from its docks.
A Massachusetts native, Quinter brings no Cuban roots to the island or the discussion. Only a legal career tied to global commerce — and a specialty in both enforcing the embargo during his tenure as a Customs lawyer and in fending off government penalties tied to it for clients of his private practice.
His trips brought him a new sense of ease when it comes to Cuba, but also firsthand experience of the conditions there. A cellphone photo of him in a baseball cap in Havana shows two crumbling buildings in the background. “Look closely,” he notes, “to see the poor condition of even the downtown area.”
Quinter sat down with Business Monday about two weeks before Obama’s recent trip. Topics included anxiety over Quinter’s first journey to Cuba, found confidence for the second, and a prediction that the U.S. embargo’s final days will begin once a new president takes office in January.
Q: Tell me about your first Cuba trip, with the Florida Bar.
A: It’s amazing how much response we got. To my surprise, it was not the response of people saying: “Oh my god I can’t believe you’re going there with Fidel still alive.” It was: “How quickly can I get my check to you?” The only people angry at me were the ones who couldn’t go.
I was nervous. I’m flying to a communist country that was seen as the enemy of the United States for so long. And I heard so many negative things about Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl. And the oppressive society there.
So I was very curious to see it myself. And I have traveled to communist countries, like China, many times. What was really interesting is about half the lawyers who went with us were Cuban Americans — children of people who had fled Cuba after the dictatorship of Fidel. Who in their own families had disputes about whether or not they should go back to Cuba. Sometimes, their parents would say: We don’t want you to go…
We were lawyers. So we wanted to meet with other lawyers there. And we did. We were fascinated by how the rule of law exists in Cuba. Do they go to law school? Do they clerk? How the court system works. How they litigate.
It was fascinating. I came away with a lot. One of the things is I’m not afraid of going to Cuba. The second time was much more comfortable. The Cuban people adore Americans. They look up to Americans. They’re looking forward to the end of the embargo.
Q: When you worked at Customs in the 1990s, you were helping enforcing the embargo. At the time, did you think the embargo was a good idea?
A: It was not my role to decide whether it was a good idea or not. I probably didn’t give it much thought. Back then we had an embargo against South Africa. We had an embargo against Panama. Embargoes come and go. Cuba’s is the only one that’s been around since before I was born.
Q: In Miami, there has been some controversy about whether it’s a good idea to bring a Cuban consulate here. Has that come up in discussions?
A: It makes sense for the Cuban consulate to be in Florida. Tampa is enthusiastic about having it there. And there’s a historical connection between Tampa and Cuba. But the bulk of the Cuban Americans who fled Cuba live here in Miami-Dade County. So this is the logical place for it. And I think eventually, whether it’s a year from now or 10 years from, the Cuban consulate will be in Miami.
Q: And has the idea of Cuban consulate in Miami come up in your travels?
A: Certainly. When you talk to Cubans in Cuba — I told you they love Americans. But they think the Cuban Americans in Miami, they know are anti-Castro, and therefore anti-Cuba. Which is really unfortunate. They always remark: “We love Americans. But there are some people in Miami we have concerns about.”
Q: And you’ve heard them mention the Cuban-consulate controversy?
A: Yes. It’s not as complete as we would like, but they have plenty of access to information from the United States, including in Miami… They think the Cuban consulate should be in Miami. Because when they leave Cuba and come to the United States, they automatically think of Miami. This is the crossroads of Latin America.
Q: What’s the status of the logistics business in Cuba right now?
A: The port of Mariel is being expanded. There are a couple of million square feet of warehousing going in there. It’s a port that one day, meaning five or 10 years from now, will compete with the major ports here in Florida. For international business. In other words, instead of coming from Europe to Miami, and being loaded onto another ship going to Latin America, it will go to Mariel instead.
It is already happening in the Bahamas. Kingston is growing. Panama is competing with the United States.
Q: What are some next steps you are waiting for from Washington?
A: I think the Congress of the United States will eventually, in the next term, whoever the president is, decide to terminate the embargo. In one fell swoop.
Q: You think that will happen when both Castros are alive?
A: I do. Most people think there won’t be a termination of the embargo until Fidel is dead. But he’s lived much longer than people have expected. He could be around another five or 10 years.
Title: Chairman of the Customs and International Trade Law Group at Gray Robinson in Miami.
Commute: Lives in Boca Raton. The drive to his office takes 80 minutes, though most of his work time involves traveling elsewhere. “I do a ‘Doral Day’ once a week to meet with clients around MIA.”
Professional involvement: Teaching about the U.S. embargo of Cuba at the annual meeting of the Inter-American Bar Association in Havana in June.
Education: Coral Springs High School (Class of ’82), Cornell University undergrad (Class of ’86), American University’s Washington College of Law (Class of ’89).
Off the clock: An avid hiker, he’s planning to be on the Appalachian Trail by the time this article goes to print. Also competes in triathlons, marathons, mud runs — and does yoga.