Cuba Follow up – Entrepreneurial seeds planted By: David Hendricks

SAN ANTONIO — Trade opportunities with Cuba in agriculture and medicine are limited and difficult to carry out — but a broader trade opening could arise only a few years from now.

That was the message the six-person San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce delegation delivered after their recent trade trip to Havana.

Cuba is buying more food than medical products, said one delegation member, Robert McKinley, a University of Texas at San Antonio associate vice president who heads the UTSA Institute for Economic Development.

Doing business with Cuba is a complicated process because the Cuban government makes the purchases, not Cuban companies. In addition, no U.S. banks operate on the island, meaning a third-country bank must be used in the transaction, McKinley explained.

All other U.S. trade with Cuba is banned under the U.S. trade embargo. Food and medicine became a humanitarian exception after a 2001 hurricane.

The UTSA institute now is better prepared to assist U.S. companies wanting to sell eligible products to Cuba, McKinley said.

But McKinley said big changes that would open the market of 11 million people could come soon.

Raúl Castro’s term expires in 21/2 years, McKinley pointed out, and now 83 years old, he is not expected to rule longer. Longtime communist leader Fidel Castro, now 87, has retired. That clears the way for new leadership, which could bring about reforms that lead to the end of the five-decade U.S. embargo.

In the interim, the Cuban government told the San Antonio delegation that it wants the U.S. government to at least allow more U.S. tourism to the island and to remove Cuba’s designation as a host of state-sponsored terrorism.

The Hispanic Chamber representatives replied that Cuba should allow freedoms of expression and Internet access. Cuban government officials responded vaguely, McKinley said, with “just give us a chance.”

The best connection between the San Antonio delegation in its visits with Cuban government and chamber of commerce leaders came when McKinley proposed expanding UTSA’s program of creating small-business development centers there.

UTSA has set up centers throughout the Caribbean and elsewhere. Cuba in recent years has allowed private ownership of tax-paying small businesses as the country comes to grips with the loss of Russia and Venezuela as sources for subsidized supplies.

“You could see in their faces they are interested in” the UTSA proposal, said Patricia Stout, Hispanic Chamber chairwoman.

The move toward entrepreneurship “is the first step to the change,” Stout added. “It’s a seed that will germinate.”

A breakthrough could occur with the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama, operated by the Organization of American States. The OAS might invite Cuba to attend for the first time, McKinley said. Its attendance could lead to further privatization of the Cuban economy, he said.

Hispanic Chamber CEO and President Ramiro Cavazos said the meetings with Cuban government, business leaders and small-business owners were friendly and honest.

“They do not hate Americans at all,” Cavazos said of Cubans in general. “They just are not happy with the law” that created the U.S. trade embargo. “It’s a law that doesn’t really work,” he said.

Cavazos added that the chamber plans additional trade missions to Cuba in anticipation of future market openings.

“We’ll go sooner than later. We’ll continue down this road,” Cavazos said. “We felt we were breaking new ground … We can make a difference by developing relationships with all layers of the government.”

By David Hendricks

July 4, 2014 | Updated: July 5, 2014 8:12pm