Castro gets wish list from U.S. businesses Top executives woo Cuban leader, hope embargo ends soon

October 26, 1995|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Cuban President Fidel Castro flew home to Havana late last night with a wallet full of American business cards.

He collected them in New York from company executives anxious to cut deals with his island nation but prevented from doing so by a trade embargo dating 33 years to the Kennedy era and the Cold War.

"It's best to get your luggage out but not pack it yet," said Tom Cox, executive director of the Washington-based U.S.-Cuba ,X Business Council. The organization was founded last year to represent 45 major companies looking toward future investment in Cuba, among them the Big Three automakers -- Chrysler, Ford and General Motors -- Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Colgate-Palmolive.

The prevailing mood among business leaders -- readiness tinged with caution -- is based on two primary factors:

* A post-revolutionary Cuban market could be potentially worth billions of dollars to U.S. companies.

* Communist Cuba's politics and economy are in crisis in the wake of the Soviet collapse. Its credit worthiness this year was ranked 126th out of 135 countries in an international rating by Institutional Investor, a prestigious financial magazine.

"It does kind of put some cold water on near-term expectations," said Mr. Cox. "Even if you set aside the issue of the embargo, there are key issues from the business perspective which need to be addressed and which suggest very strong commercial and political risk in Cuba."

What many executives want, apart from an end to the embargo, is more freedom in Cuba than foreign companies now have to hire and fire Cuban workers, a reliable claims arbitration system and restitution for or return of property seized in the 1959 Cuban revolution, estimated to be worth about $6 billion today.

But there was little sign of such misgivings as business leaders indulged in what a New York Times headline termed "Fidelmania" while Mr. Castro was in New York this week to address the United Nations.

If the 69-year-old patriarch of Cuba's revolution was a pariah on the diplomatic circuit and shunned on the Big Apple's social calendar, he was a hit in the world of business.

He had more than 200 invitations from U.S. executives to breakfast, lunch or dinner, according to John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a nonprofit liaison group between U.S. business and the Cuban government.

Dwayne O. Andreas, chairman of the board and chief executive of agricultural products processor Archer Daniels Midland Co., sat next to Mr. Castro at a Saturday night dinner in New York.

"It was like two businessmen talking," recalled Mr. Andreas. "It's kind of amazing. What he said was, 'Look, those of us who were in the revolution now have an entirely different role. Now that we are in charge, we have to run businesses just exactly like you do. I am running and creating businesses all over Cuba as fast as I can.'

"Businessmen were eager to get his pitch and know what his plans are. I don't know how many companies would go in there, but when you are the only companies in the world shut out by your own government, naturally that tends to exacerbate your own feelings about it.

"We should inundate him with American businessmen. Why not? That would bring about freedom and democracy faster than any other thing."

Despite all the excitement, neither the Clinton administration nor the Republican-controlled Congress shows any sign of ending the economic embargo. Congress is considering legislation, currently in a Senate-House conference committee, tightening the sanctions in an effort to speed the end of the Castro regime.

"Fidel Castro is on the ropes," said Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, the Republican chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. "He is looking around trying to sell anything he can, whether he owns it or not, in a search for hard cash."

Mr. Clinton this month announced a two-track Cuba policy, tightening enforcement of the economic embargo to increase pressure on Mr. Castro but also easing travel and communications links.

Many analysts believe that the embargo on Cuba will last, in one form or another, as long as Mr. Castro is in power.

Waiting for the relationship to change is Kurt Carlson, chairman of the board of Carlson Companies Inc., parent company of Radisson Hotels International and TGI Friday's. In 1989 he was invited to Cuba to look at potential hotel sites.

There was, he recalled, "a meeting of the minds" on a promontory 40 feet above Varadero Beach, southwest of Havana, on what he was told was the former Dupont family estate. But, because of the embargo, nothing could happen.

"I still think that they are going to keep their promise on that lot so we can put that hotel up," said Mr. Carlson. "We will just wait until the time comes, and we will be down there as soon as Cuba opens up."

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