BY MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Across the street from the massive Karl Marx theater sits a beige-colored building that has become a critical stop for businesses preparing for the economic future of the Caribbean’s largest nation.

The law office of Lex S.A.—a spinoff from the Chamber of Commerce of Cuba—helps about 100 companies a month register their trademarks and brands in Cuba. Some are already doing business on the island under exclusions to the U.S. embargo, others await the day when the sanctions end and the two nations resume normal trade.

On the wall is a picture frame crowded with the logos of some of the firm’s recent clients: Sprite, Cafe Pilon and Kmart.

As the pace of legal U.S.-Cuban trade continues to speed up—despite the nearly 50-year-old embargo—institutions such as Lex will likely play a critical role in the emerging partnership.

LOOPHOLES EXIST

Most U.S. companies and their subsidiaries have been banned from conducting business on the island since the embargo was solidified in 1962 under the Kennedy administration. But the sanctions contain exemptions and loopholes that do allow some transactions.

About 158 U.S. firms currently do business with the island, mainly under food and agriculture exclusions carved out in 2000, and more than 5,000 U.S. companies have registered their brands on the island, said Kirby Jones, the founder of Alamar Associates, which has been helping U.S. companies make Cuban contacts since 1974.

The Coca-Cola Co., which owns Sprite, said their trademark registration was simply in the interest of protecting their brand.

``These registrations should not be interpreted as a precursor to a launch in Cuba but part of a normal and legal course of business,’’ the company said in an e-mail.

Kmart and Cafe Pilon did not respond to interview requests.

NEBULOUS NETWORKS

While dealing with Cuba has gotten easier in the past decade, the lack of traditional business institutions can sometimes be baffling for newcomers, Jones said.

``Say you are in the business of manufacturing tractors and say, `I want to get ready for business in Cuba’ and reach for the phone. Who do you call?’’ he said. ``It’s not a system set up as in other countries. You can’t say `I am going to call the ministry of X and scout around and find out who might purchase my widgets.’ ‘’

Another key business institution in Cuba is Alimport, the government-run importer of food and agricultural products that supplies national distributors, such as Cubalse, Cimex and Palmares.

Richard Waltzer has been dealing with Alimport since 2002 when his Fort Lauderdale company, Splash Tropical Drinks, began sending juice and daiquiri mixes to the island. Splash also exports third-party grocery products such as peanut butter, crackers and coffee creamer.

Waltzer said Cuban officials have always been ``very accommodating’’ and have helped turn the nation into one of his most important export markets. Splash does not disclose revenue, but sales to the island now represent about 10 percent of business, he said.

Hoping to capitalize on his experience, Waltzer recently launched the Havana Group to help other businesses develop Cuba strategies.

``I look at this as an opportunity to build American brands there,’’ he said. ``At some point in the future when the embargo is lifted—and I feel that is going to happen—we will have established the business relationships and business model to help other companies to do what we have been doing successfully for the last seven years.’‘

Relationships are key to business, and that holds true in Cuba, too.

But because the U.S. bars most business travel to the island, those contacts can be hard to make from abroad. (For example, Miami Herald requests for basic business information made via phone calls and e-mail to Alimport, Cimex, the organizers of the annual Havana International Fair and the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., were not returned.)

EXPOS ARE KEY

Marvin Lehrer, senior advisor for the USA Rice Federation, has been attending trade fairs in Cuba since 2001.

He said the expos were key to brokering some early deals for U.S. rice growers, but since then—as more business is done via e-mail and phone—the event’s importance has faded.

Still, he said, it is a key venue to make initial contacts and get a feel for the Cuban market.

``If an American wants to sell to Cuba and thinks he has the right product, then go to the trade show,’’ he said. ``You might say `I will never do this again,’ but you might also make a sale.’‘

One organization that will likely see its fortunes turn if the embargo is ever lifted is the Chamber of Commerce of Cuba.

Located on the corner of a leafy green street in Havana—with its windows and doors flung open to mitigate the effects of a power-rationing program that prohibits air conditioning in many government offices—the chamber has not had a U.S. member since it was relaunched in 1963 under the Fidel Castro regime.

Still, it is a place where international entrepreneurs gather information or meet others in the business community.

The arrival of U.S. representatives ebbs and flows with the changing political winds, said Ibrahim Rodríguez Cuevas, an expert in international law at the chamber.

During the initial days of the Obama administration, there were hopes that the U.S. might make a dramatic move to dismantle the embargo, he said. Since then, it has become clear that any changes that come will be gradual and tenuous.

``Things looked like they were going to improve,’’ Cuevas said. ``But politics seems to have everything on hold again.’‘

A Miami Herald staff writer reported from Havana. The name of the reporter was withheld because the journalist lacked the visa required by the Cuban government to report from the island. Past requests by The Miami Herald for such a visa went unanswered.