In such areas as trade, the environment, the arts, even tourism, Americans are choosing to work with Cubans despite an economic embargo
The sixth floor of the Hotel Nacional in the Vedado business district of Havana, Cuba, is the executive level, complete with secretarial services, fax machines, computers and reliable telephones.
Regular Cuban citizens are not permitted such links to the outside world, but the communist Cuban government with which the U.S. government has had no formal ties for four decades is so intent on inviting foreign investment that the Hotel Nacional has equivalent amenities to a business-class hotel anywhere in the world.
In wicker chairs on a morning in early November, the sixth-floor lobby was filled with the sound of conversations in English—American English. One man in a gray business suit readied himself for the Havana International Trade Fair, at which 71 American companies pitched the narrow band of produce, services and wares allowed under a humanitarian relief concession to the embargo made by the Clinton administration in 2000.
Over a breakfast of scrambled eggs, stringy limp bacon, papaya slices and guava paste, two women spoke of the previous evening’s art auction and concert that benefited a children’s cancer hospital—part of the Bienale, an every-other-year art festival in Havana.
At another table a Florida professor of environmental studies and a veterinarian from the Florida Aquarium discussed events leading up to a conference on coastal ecosystems planned 200 miles southeast of Havana later in the week.
Here on the sixth floor of one hotel in Havana were American businessmen, farmers, musicians, artists, scientists, environmentalists—everyone poised to pounce on the various riches Cuba is perceived to harbor.
Think the sixth-floor executive level was crowded with Americans? Check out the lobby downstairs, where the din of back-slapping Americans there to explore opportunity filled the air to the grand room’s 30-foot ceilings. And don’t even bother with a Spanish phrasebook at Jose Marti International Airport south of Havana when Delta, Continental and American Airlines charter flights show up at the same time; more English is spoken there than in Miami International.
“If this place had oil, we would have been here a long time ago,” said one of the Americans upon arrival, and conversely: “If Iraq had broccoli fields we wouldn’t be there.”
Cuba, of course, has not enough of either to speak of, but for Americans, there is the allure of the forbidden fruit. For businessmen, there is the prospect of an untapped market. For environmentalists, there is the obligation to shared waters and species. For tourists of other nationalities, there is the combination of all these. And, lest one forget, there is the enticement of such simple and universal likes as beaches, sightseeing, history, cigars and Cuban music.
On a Saturday night in the 1930 Saloon at the Hotel Nacional, about 500 tourists—a majority of them American—watched a performance of the Buena Vista Social Club, a musical group made famous by the album produced by Ry Cooder and documentary film made by Wim Wenders that featured legends of Cuban music. Worldwide, the CD and several spinoffs sold more than 8 million copies and skyrocketed Cuban octogenarian musicians—some of whom had been reduced to shining shoes to make a living—to international stardom.
This latest incarnation of the group, which banded together with the Afro-Cuban All Stars, appeared to be an indication that the Buena Vista Social Club has expanded its membership in deference to an audience of tourists.
While only some of the music was the same as the familiar tunes from the original Buena Vista Social Club album, it carried with it the underlying beat that seems to drive every aspect of Cuba—even its politics: One hip goes one way, and the gringo thinks he knows what’s coming next, but in the next beat comes a surprise in the rhythm and a sudden change in direction.
Guillermo “The Master” Rubalcaba sat down to the keyboard and began playing a rendition of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” an American song that seemed a fitting tribute to the listening American tourists, suddenly liberated from their own government’s constraints that prevent most from visiting Cuba. They expressed their liberation by swaying along and puffing on the unlit ends of Montecristo No. 4 or Cohiba Esplendido cigars.
As much as it is about cigars and music, Ramon Castro Ruz, Fidel’s older brother, says visiting Cuba is about the beaches and becoming a cheap vacationland.
“We just need the American people to enjoy our beaches,” said Castro, who has stayed largely out of the political eye but serves in the role of a sort of goodwill ambassador. “We want to have hotels with good prices so the old people of the U.S. can enjoy them. We don’t want anything for Cuba; we just want to help you.”
Ramon Castro’s words are certainly debatable: Cuba’s decision a decade ago to focus on drawing tourists to support the country’s failing economy was one of self-preservation and therefore undermines any supposed motives that might help the United States. Nevertheless, Fidel’s older brother’s words are emblematic of the Cuban attitude on the streets.
“Do you like Cuba?” asked a Cuban man sitting on the wall that most of the time holds back the crashing waves of the Florida Straits from the seaside drive known as the Malecon.
“It’s wonderful,” answered the American.
“Would you want to trade places?” the man asked.
The American stared blankly for a moment and then answered. “No.”
Both laughed. One with the wisdom of an old man, the other with the embarrassment and guilt that comes with an admission.
The old man by the sea stopped the American to give a souvenir of their wry laugh together. In a reversal of roles, the Cubano gave the turista a note of currency—a one-peso note, worth about 4 cents. About 179 more, and the old man would have been giving away an average Cuban’s one-month salary, which equates to roughly $7 or $8.
Cubans are forced to scrounge for dollars; their salaries of pesos barely cover rent and monthly rations as permitted to be purchased in government-run neighborhood bodegas.
While the Cubans are forced to scrounge, tourists take advantage of the power of the dollar.
“Our grocery bill rarely exceeds $10 a week,” said Bob Groves of Manitoulin Island, Canada.
Groves and his wife, Kathy, live aboard their 26-foot sloop, Easy Go, in Marina Hemingway. The couple has been in port for about eight months.
Four great canals comprise the marina named for one of Cuba’s favorite Americans: writer Ernest Hemingway, who was awarded the Nobel Prize shortly after writing his short novel about a Cuban fisherman, “The Old Man and the Sea.”
As many as 200 yachts—as large as 200 feet—can dock in these canals. Currently there are only a couple dozen boats, however.
One of Groves’ American neighbors, who would not give his name—perhaps because he had an illegally obtained Lee County recycling bin on the bow of his sailboat—said most Americans left when the U.S. government threatened to impound any boats coming from Cuban waters earlier this year.
“It’s not going to change overnight if it opens up,” Groves predicted of the end of the embargo. “It’ll just be a friendlier world.”
Across Havana on that same afternoon, businessmen were working toward that friendlier world as they prepared for the opening of the 21st annual Havana International Trade Fair on Nov. 2.
In one booth, Naples resident J. Parke Wright, president of J.P. Wright & Co., was setting up a display that featured posters of the cattle he hopes soon to ship to Cuba to begin introducing new bloodlines into Cuba’s depleted national herd.
“Most U.S. companies are here planting seeds,” said Brian C. Dawson, senior account executive with IBC Airways in Miami. The air freight carrier was looking to expand its two weekly flights from Miami to Havana, carrying food, medical supplies, humanitarian aid, even paperwork for the U.S. government.
Across the way Michael R. Mauricio was fretting about fruit. The president of Tampa’s Florida Produce was looking at a booth empty of fresh fruit. His shipment of display fruit was held up in Cuban customs, and the fair was set to open.
Mauricio is of Cuban descent. His grandparents came to Tampa in the early 1900s to work in the cigar factories. But he is quick to point out he does not consider himself a Cuban-American.
“You’re either a Cuban or an American,” he said—not that his Cuban heritage doesn’t play a role in his interests. He cited what he said is an old Cuban saying: “Your blood calls to you sometimes.”
Since 2002, his blood has called to him to the tune of roughly $800,000 in sales to Cuba. Throughout the course of the trade fair, he would go on to sign nearly $150,000 in contracts with ALIMPORT, the arm of the Cuban government that negotiates imports. Over the next few months, Florida Produce’s apples, pears and grapes will begin to flow into Cuba.
Likewise, Enrique Montejo, operations director for Purity Products in Miami, said the Cuban market now accounts for as much as 10 percent of his company’s $22 million business. Purity makes between 300 and 400 products. Currently it exports only three—mayonnaise packets, tomato paste and spices—to Cuba.
Both Montejo and Mauricio believe it’s a win-win situation for them and the Cuban people.
“Obviously it’s getting to the people,” Mauricio said. “I’ve seen my apples being sold on the streets of Havana for 35 cents apiece. It was an incredible sight. That is what’s going to make a difference with these people. There’s a humanitarian side to this. This is not only about economic gain for me.”
For these reasons, Mauricio is opposed to the embargo. He calls it a political embargo, not an economic one.
“There are 617,000 reasons why this embargo is in place, and they all live in Miami,” he said, referring to Miami’s politically powerful population of Cuban-Americans. “We deal $1 trillion a year with the Chinese—the biggest Communist country in the world. What’s the difference between trading with China and trading with Cuba?”