Florida Wary of Doing Business in Cuba


Florida wary of doing business in Cuba

WASHINGTON – Hold the mojitos. Florida’s business leaders are not yet toasting the advent of closer trade ties to Cuba.

The state that stands to gain the most from President Barack Obama’s historic outreach to Cuba is also the most reluctant to do business with the Castro regime or to relax a five-decade U.S. embargo.

Florida cattlemen, shippers, bankers and telecom makers are eager to open a new market for their goods and services, taking advantage of their close proximity to the needy island. But they see many obstacles to overcome before Cuba becomes a suitable place for investment and trade, including its hostility to capitalism, a repressive government and an impoverished population of 11 million with very little buying power.

Florida has unique advantages from expanded trade with Cuba, but special reasons to resist.

“Obama opening the door does not erase 50 years of bad blood between Cuba and the U.S.,” said June Wolfe, president of the South Florida Manufacturers Association.

When Wolfe asked local manufacturers whether they sold products to Cuba or hope to do so, “those responding said ‘no’ to both questions. A resounding ‘no,’ I might add.”

Leaders of Enterprise Florida, the state’s trade promoter, said they are happy to discuss prospects for developing trade with any other nation — but not Cuba.

“I question whether Cuba under its current governmental tyranny that they’ve had for the last 50 years has the right environment for the private sector to invest in,” said Alex Sanchez, president of the Florida Bankers Association.

Nonetheless, some Floridians who have been selling food and other products to Cuba for years say new federal rules that took effect on Friday widened the possibilities for tapping a market just 90 miles from Key West. Much of this trade passes through Port Everglades, the nation’s leading port for exporting goods to Cuba.

“A lot of folks are looking at potential opportunities. Everyone’s sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to see what’s going to happen,” said Jim Pyburn, director of business development at Port Everglades. “We are poised to take advantage. They need everything down there — building materials, groceries. You name it, it’s going to need to go down there.”

The rules that took effect on Friday allow more Americans to travel to Cuba, spend more money and bring back more goods. They encourage companies to sell and install telecommunications equipment. Banks are allowed to create accounts on the island, and Americans can sell building materials to shore up Cuba’s crumbling roads, bridges and buildings.

“People in Florida are networking to figure out who needs to talk to whom and how they can fit in,” said Jay Brickman, vice president of government services for Crowley Maritime Corp., which ships food each week from Port Everglades to Cuba.

Brickman said he was attending an embassy reception in Havana on Dec. 17 — the same day Obama announced his new policy on Cuba — and bumped into telecommunications representatives from Florida and Georgia who were scoping out the possibilities.

“It shows that telecommunications people are very interested, very proactive and trying to lay the groundwork to see how they can enter into the market,” Brickman said.

The rules also reduce restrictions on financing, making it easier for Florida businesses to expand sales of food and medicine, which have been allowed as an exception to the U.S. embargo.

“We are all ready to go with new products, and I’m sure some of our competitors are as well,” said John Bauer, president of Basic Food International of Fort Lauderdale, which ships chicken and other food products to Cuba. “We are looking forward to it. It’s going to be good for the people of Cuba, and it will be good business for us as soon as they get their finances in order.

“One can always do some bartering. They have good lobster tails and shrimp. Maybe they can be exchanged for meat products.”

The limited trade that trickles from Florida to Cuba has declined in recent years, mostly because Cubans lack the money to pay for more products to meet their growing needs.

Florida livestock shipments have slowed, but some ranchers hope to increase exports of breeding semen, dairy cows and cattle for meat production.

“The sooner we start spending money in their country and they get on their feet financially, the better off that country is going to be. And I think democracy will find its way,” said Renee Strickland of Manatee County, president of the Livestock Exporters Association of the USA, who has helped fellow ranchers arrange livestock sales to Cuba. “But it’s got to be done slowly and carefully. I’ve asked a few of my friends living in Cuba, ‘Are you guys ready for us? Because it’s going to rock your world when we can go there.'”

U.S.-Cuba trade dropped to $273 million through the first 11 months of 2014, according to WorldCity of Coral Gables, which tracks international trade. Exports to Cuba are likely to increase slowly, perhaps by 10 percent this year, then rise gradually in later years, predicted Ken Roberts, president of WorldCity.

During the 11-month period, Port Everglades had $46 million worth of trade with Cuba, topping the list of U.S. airports or seaports that exchange goods with the island, according to WorldCity. The Port of Miami, Port of Palm Beach and Port Canaveral do not yet send goods to Cuba, but Obama’s outreach has stoked a pent-up demand to open the market.

“There is a fever pitch back here in South Florida. A lot of people are running around wanting to have a mojito in downtown Havana,” said Port of Palm Beach executive director Manuel Almira. “But this is one step of many to come.”

Wgibson@Tribune.com, 202-824-8256

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