Signs that U.S.-Cuba relations are further thawing emerged this spring. The U.S. government appears close to taking Cuba off its state-sponsored terrorism list, and for the first time, Cuba will join 34 other nations at the Summit of the Americas starting Friday.
In December, when President Barack Obama announced plans to reestablish diplomatic ties with Cuba, he said Americans can now bring home $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including $100 of tobacco and alcohol products combined.
But a 50-year-old embargo remains in place and only Congress can reverse it. U.S. companies have been laying the groundwork for increasing business with Cuba once the import ban is revoked.
Cigar lovers are among those eager to see relations normalized. But it’s not just cigars. If the embargo lifts, Cuba could supply the U.S. with other lesser-known products that represent a much higher total dollar amount, said Kirby Jones, founder of Alamar Associates, a consulting firm for companies wanting to do business in Cuba since 1974.
Pots and planes
Cuba has one of the largest deposits of nickel in the world, but the metal is hard to find in the United States, though it’s used in many stainless steel products, electronics, batteries and airplane parts. “There are untapped reserves (in Cuba) that go into the next century,” and if nickel was mined and sold to the U.S. it could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars, Jones said.
Cuba also has a booming biotechnology industry that produces vaccines currently not available in the United States. “The American biotechnology industry knows about Cuba very well,” said Jones. “They go to international conferences together, and it’s a very sophisticated multimillion dollar industry.”
“For American companies that are importing fruits and vegetables from Mexico and other nearby countries, Cuba represents a potential market because they have lots of available land for farming,” and its growing season starts earlier than the United States, Jones said. Cuba’s oranges and grapefruits, for example, arrive two weeks earlier than Florida citrus.
One of Cuba’s top agricultural products is sugarcane, and it’s another area where the tropical island nation is opening its vast agriculture land to foreign investment, Jones said. Before the embargo was put in place in the early 1960s, the United States got more than one-third of its sugar from Cuba.
Made from all that sugarcane is another of Cuba’s specialties: rum. And it’s not just the well-known Havana Club brand anymore. More and more Cuban cities are offering their own varieties of brands and flavors, said Jones. “When rum ages, it gets smoother and darker, and all Cuban rum is naturally aged.”
For decades, the United States and Cuba have been used to saying “no” to each other, said Jones. So when companies such as Netflix, credit cards and airlines say they want to start operations in Cuba, they have get Cuba’s approval first — and they can’t assume the answer will always be “yes.”
“We have to realize there’s another side to the table,” he said. “It’s a mindset that has to change, it will change, and it probably is changing now.”