Google, General Electric and cruise lines expected to ink Cuba business deals soon

People waving Cuban flags greeted passengers on Carnival’s Adonia cruise as it neared Havana Harbor on May 2.
People waving Cuban flags greeted passengers on Carnival’s Adonia cruise as it neared Havana Harbor on May 2. AP

A slew of major U.S. corporations, prodded by the White House, are rushing to ink business deals with Cuba in coming weeks, ahead of the start of President-elect Donald Trump’s administration.

General Electric, Google and three cruise companies — Norwegian Cruise Line, Pearl Seas Cruises and Royal Caribbean Cruises — have potential agreements nearing completion, several knowledgeable sources told the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

The companies have been in negotiations for months, following the lead of President Barack Obama’s administration, which relaxed commercial and banking sanctions against Cuba’s communist regime. With Trump signaling he’ll take a much harder line toward Cuba, the Obama administration is pushing to settle business agreements that would make it more difficult to undo the president’s Cuba opening.

A roll-out of the deals was imminent but was delayed by the death of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro Friday, one source told el Nuevo Herald.

The agreements were first reported Thursday by the Wall Street Journal.

GE’s interest is in a hydroelectric power plant in Cuba’s Matanzas province, one source told el Nuevo Herald. The Cuban government considers renewable energy a priority sector for foreign investment.

In March, GE and the Cuban government signed memorandums of understanding to pursue business opportunities for GE to provide power, aviation and medical equipment to the island.

“We are currently exploring opportunities to work in Cuba and are in ongoing discussions about potential projects,” a spokesperson for GE said.

None of the other companies would confirm the agreements are almost complete.

“On Cuba, no news to report from our end yet,” Rob Zeiger, global chief communications officer for Miami-based Royal Caribbean, said Thursday in an email to the Herald.

Vanessa Picariello, spokeswoman for Miami-based Norwegian, said in a statement Thursday that the company “is in continued talks with appropriate authorities in Cuba on behalf of all three of its brands: Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas Cruises.”

“We remain optimistic that we will receive approval for one or more of our brands and be able to offer our guests Caribbean cruises including Cuba in the near future,” Picariello said.

In April 2015, Norwegian Chief Executive Frank del Rio offered plans for a weekly cruise to Cuba if the U.S. lifted its trade embargo against the island. The Treasury Department issued new cruise regulations for the Cuban market in September 2015.

So far, only Doral-based Carnival Corp. has hinted at a timeline for Cuba trips. As owner of the only U.S. line currently sailing to the island, Carnival expects to get approval for a second cruise line by June 2017.

Cruise expert Stewart Chiron said the other operators are likely to get approval next year, too. The tell-tale sign, he said, are the ships. Royal Caribbean’s 2,270-passenger Empress of the Seas was renovated for future Cuba trips, but bookings on its current Caribbean sailings, which at first were only available six weeks at a time, are now open well into 2017.

“I’m extremely confident nothing has changed,” Chiron said. “There’s nothing imminent.”

Christine Schrager, spokeswoman for Connecticut-based Pearl Seas, said the company is “working closely with the Cuban government to finalize necessary approvals.”

“We look forward to operating 10 night cruises currently planned in 2017,” she said.

Google did not respond to a request for comment.

El Nuevo Herald reported in July 2015 that Google had offered the Cuban government a plan to provide web access to Cubans, though that proposal went nowhere. Google nevertheless kept working with Cuba, which allowed the company to map the island’s biggest cities.

A number of U.S. corporations have been granted approval to work in Cuba. Commercial flights to Cuba resumed earlier this year; the first regularly scheduled flight between Miami and Havana took place Monday.

American Airlines plans to trim its Cuba flights in February as a result of weak demand, to 10 a day from 13. It will reduce its daily flights between Miami and Holguín, Santa Clara and Varadero to one from two. The airline is still hoping to establish flights to Camagüey and Cienfuegos.

Last week, Carnival said its 704-passenger Adonia ship, part of the Fathom cruise line that has been sailing to Cuba since May, will make its final trip to the island next summer. By then, Carnival expects another of its 10 cruise lines to be taking Americans to Cuba, though the Cuban government has yet to sign off on which one.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, who led the talks that reestablished U.S.-Cuba relations, traveled to Havana this week on a scheduled trip that coincided with Castro’s memorial. The White House has not yet provided details on Rhodes’ Cuba meetings.

Josefina Vidal, who heads the U.S. Department at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, said in September that at least six U.S.-Cuba business deals were expected before the end of the year. She also said ETECSA, the Cuban telecommunications provider, was in talks with U.S. companies already working with the government — such as Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon — about expanding web access.

Miami Herald staff writer Chabeli Herrera contributed to this report.