JOHN PAIN| Associated Press
CORAL GABLES, Fla. - U.S. companies would have billions of dollars in economic opportunities if the American trade embargo on Cuba were lifted, but the communist nation’s economy would have to be modernized before reaping those benefits, panels of experts said Thursday.
Agriculture, tourism and telecommunications would be among the areas of most opportunity, and U.S. exports to Cuba could reach about $1 billion a year if the expansive trade restrictions in place for more than four decades are removed, said speakers at a conference organized by Florida International University.
The typical Cuban eats much less meat today than during the 1980s, when the Soviet Union was the major trading partner with Cuba, said James Ross, a food and agriculture professor at the University of Florida. That scarcity leaves an opening for U.S. cattle, pork and poultry producers without an embargo, he said.
Most U.S. trade to Cuba is prohibited under the embargo designed to topple Cuban President Fidel Castro’s government. But Congress passed a law in 2000 that let U.S. farmers and companies sell food and agricultural products to Cuba on a cash-only basis. The trade is one-way, so Cuba can’t sell anything in the United States.
Ross said that has helped U.S. farmers make inroads into the Cuban market, but they could sell much more agricultural products without the embargo.
A Cuban official said in April that his country has spent about $640 million for U.S. farm goods - including transportation and banking fees - since late 2001. The U.S. Cuba Trade and Economic Council estimates the value of American farm products purchased by Cuba thus far at closer to $430 million, excluding other costs.
Much of Cuba’s tourism infrastructure, such as its ports and hotels, is also outdated and would have to be renovated to handle a larger influx of visitors, said Maria Dolores Espino, an associate professor at St. Thomas University.
That’s also the case of Cuba’s telecommunications network, which dates to before Castro’s rise to power in 1959, said Eloisa Regalado, an international lawyer for AT&T Corp. Most of the cables used by the phone system are coaxial, not modern fiber optics, she said.
“AT&T doesn’t have anyone who can fix that. They have all died or retired,” she said.
Only about 6 percent of Cubans have a phone and less than 1 percent have Internet access, so the potential for growth is enormous, she said.