Morning in CUBA? As hard times force Havana to reach out, some in U.S. push for embargo's end

August 01, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Mexico City Bureau

Havana, Cuba -- This capital shows all its scars as dozens of American executives take a rare, and virtually illegal, tour.

They ride past crumbling office buildings and collapsed manufacturing plants, roads full of potholes and ports using antiquated equipment, hospitals without electricity and basic medicines and lines of people waiting for meager rations of rice ++ and beans.

Still, the executives cannot shake images of Cuba's "Yanqui" heyday, though most only know of it from books and movies. They look out over the decay and imagine how things must have been more than 30 years ago -- before the missile crisis, before the Bay of Pigs invasion, before Fidel Castro.

In those times, Americans by the thousands came to play on the island's pristine beaches or inside its swank casinos and nightclubs. And most consumer goods -- from cars to clothes and packaged foods -- were American-made.

A growing number of U.S. executives believe those days could return as foreign investments begin to trickle into Cuba. Although Americans are still barred from doing business here, some are positioning themselves for a piece of the action -- and questioning an embargo that is a generation old.

"We really don't have anything against Cuba right now," said Edward Kolpin, a Los Angeles trader who visited Havana recently in hopes of becoming the first to sell Cuban beer and cigars if the 32-year-old U.S. embargo is lifted. "The Cubans are not in Angola anymore. Let's get along."

Said Joseph Strain, manager of sales and marketing for the Jacksonville (Fla.) Port Authority: "We need to lobby the White House. Here we are with a blockade that has been passed from president to president without one of them asking, 'What are we doing?' or, 'Why are we doing it?' "

The Cuban government is feeding their optimism. Suffering from severe shortages of food, fuel and medicine since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr. Castro's government is desperate to lure foreign investment, pledging that such investments are secure. Promising joint ventures have already been formed with companies from Canada, Spain and Mexico.

"This is the most difficult and complex situation we have faced since the revolution," says Carlos Lage, vice president of the Council of Ministers. "This situation has forced us to look for new markets and to seek new ways of development."

American executives see signs that the U.S. government's tone toward Cuba has softened.

Recent legislation allows for more humanitarian aid to Cuba. Travel restrictions have been loosened. And, to give Cubans more contact with the outside world, U.S. companies might be allowed to provide equipment and services to improve phone links with the island.

Even so, U.S. officials maintain that such moves don't signal a warming relationship with Mr. Castro's government.

"There are purposeful distortions of reality on the part of the Cuban government," says Robert Gelbard, deputy assistant secretary of state for Intra-American Affairs. "We have no intention of lifting the embargo. . . . Castro can't have economic freedoms without political freedoms."

Still, they hope

Despite the hard-line political rhetoric, most U.S. businessmen talk about an open Cuban market in terms of when, not if.

American executives are traveling to Cuba for conferences such as one organized a few weeks ago by Euromoney, a London-based magazine. It drew representatives from corporations such as Eastman Kodak Co., PepsiCo Inc.'s KFC Corp. and BFI International Inc.

"We want to be ready when the embargo is lifted," Mr. Kolpin said.

The executives' visit lasted one afternoon, but they said meetings with Cuban officials -- including those in the agriculture, tourism and biotechnology -- provided first-hand information about the nation's economic crisis, as well as opportunities that might someday exist. European companies already have deals ranging from the construction of luxury hotels to management of shipyards to operation of nickel mines.

"I started thinking about Cuba a year ago because it's only 90 miles from Miami," said Mark Perrin Lowery, an executive at BFI International, a trash management company. "And I thought that any country that's been under the hegemony of the Soviet Union for so long had to have great needs.

"I was right. There are so many opportunities here," he said, looking over a field with hundreds of rows of rusted cars and trucks. "It's exciting."

Poor, but vast potential

Although desperately poor, this country is rich in natural resources and a potentially lucrative site for manufacturing.

Despite the shortages and neglect, Cuba's infrastructure is enviable compared with other Caribbean and Third World nations. A sophisticated transportation system supported the industries that thrived during the country's heyday, and most roads and ports need only be refurbished.

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