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Pacific Northwest Connections to Cuba

Posted on Mar 17 by Stephen E. Murphy

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Pacific Northwest Connections to Cuba
Pictured: Stephen Murphy, Pacific NW Advisors, speaks with Vice Dean Fidel de la Oliva and Professor Echenique, University of Havana, about a consulting accord.

With President Obama’s announced plans to visit Cuba next week on Air Force One, several Pacific Northwest firms and organizations are seeking more outreach:

  • Rick Steves’ Inc. has just completed its first visit to Cuba last month
  • I-Sustain Inc. is taking a group of 17 businesses and NGO’s to Cuba for sustainable development
  • The University of Washington’s Foster School of Business is leading 30 MBA student delegation.
  • Alaska Air has requested two new air routes to Havana, given the new Civil Aviation Accord
  • Governor Inslee signed a multi-state letter requesting approval to export wheat to Cuba

Last year, Bellevue’s Chamber of Commerce sponsored a 10 person mission to Cuba, with local engineers, architects and bankers.  Per Lincoln Vanderveen, its Vice President of Public Affairs, “Cuba is beautiful and charming, but only expansion of free market principles will sustain that beauty and charm’.  However, a recent visit by Seattle’s Young Presidents found that Cuba seemed to lack ‘skilled tradesmen’ in order to build out its hotel infrastructure.

With my own visit to Havana as ‘emissary’ in behalf of Seattle University, Seattle’s International Film Festival, and a U.S. client, we opened dialogue with the following organizations:

  • University of Havana:  We met up with the Dean of Business School, who said that a new ‘tourism’ department was created, with ties to AirBnB.  Dean Philips of SU’s Albers School of Business also sent his counterpart a textbook in Finance and SU’s Prof. McCleod has taught history courses at this prestigious university.
  • Cuba’s International School of Film and Television (EICTV): We met up with its VP, International Relations, who confirmed that EICTV offers 100 scholarships yearly to all students of ‘the Americas’, including Spanish-speaking norteamericanos.  Film Director, Kiki Alvarez, who entered his film ‘Venice’ in SIFF last year, is seeking joint film projects, but advises that Cuban regulations still need to be ‘modernized’
  • The Arch Diocese of Havana:  Thanks to help of our local Arch Diocese and the US Catholic Conference of Bishops, I met with the chief Administrator in Havana, who confirmed that ‘Knights of Columbus’ are making a ‘comeback’ in Cuba and asks for our help and prayers. A new Catholic ‘Cultural Center’ and fledgling university is starting up in Habana Vieja’s seminary.

As a former VP at BankBoston (now part of Bank of America), I was tasked by its ‘Alumni Association’ to find its old building, nationalized by the Central Bank of Cuba in 1961.  The building in Habana Vieja now houses the Central Bank’s ‘Administrative Directorate’, and is subject to ongoing litigation by Bank of America.  Despite millions of dollars claims outstanding by US businesses against Cuba, the Stonegate Bank of Florida recently opened a corresponding bank relationship with Central Bank of Cuba.

To deal with many outstanding issues between US business and Cuba, the US Chamber of Commerce recently launched ‘the U.S.-Cuba Business Council’, including several Fortune 100 firms. Says US Chamber President, Tom Donohue: “We’re facing a historic opportunity to support a vital and growing Cuban private sector, one that is defined by entrepreneurs, whose expanding efforts show that the spirit of free enterprise is already taking hold in the country.”

Pacific Northwest Advisors LLC has also created ‘Team Cuba’, with representatives in Seattle, Havana and Miami. Says its president Jon Bensky: “We’re excited to have accomplished researchers like Reynier and Frank joining our group to conduct market studies in Cuba.  After 50 years, the Cuban market is unknown territory to American business.  We now have expertise in-house to identify business opportunities and substantiate potential Cuban partner qualifications.”

Recently, PNWA’s Havana researcher and the writer completed a client study on ‘Goat Herds and Hides in Cuba’, but found difficulties with state monopolies control tanning and distribution operations. As new entrepreneurs like family goat herders vie for dollars in Cuba’s new ‘mixed economy’, many now forgo dealing with state firms in favor of private distributors in the ‘parallel market’.

Another service that PNWA’s rep in Havana offered local I Sustain is finding private residences to host international delegations, unable to secure hotels during Havana’s ‘high tourist season.’  For I-Sustain, Reynier negotiated a deluxe apartment rental in the fashionable Vedado neighborhood, for several late comers to its Cuba mission. The home owner was thrilled to earn dollars, and Reynier to expand his service to Pacific Northwest firms seeking space and lodging in this ‘tight’ Havana market place.

Says Pedro Magalhaes, founder and CEO of Magellan Architects of Redmond, and member of this delegation:  “There appear to be many opportunities to restore Cuba’s classic colonial buildings, to become new B&B’s.  As the new wave of American tourism breaks over Cuba, the country desperately needs better tourism infrastructure, including refurbished buildings and working classic cars.”

Observed Rick Steves from his recent trip to Cuba:  "Cubans seem free to talk politics, and love doing just that. We spent hours on the rooftop of our B&B talking with our hosts. The conversations were wide-ranging and full of memorable quotes:  “When you give people things for free, they don’t value it.” Or “We don’t throw away anything. We just repair it and repair it and repair it.”

Cautions Bruce Chapman, Founder and Chairman, Discovery Institute of Seattle, and visitor to Cuba:  “We should not forget the nature of the current Cuban regime. Nonetheless, personal contact with individual Cubans now could turn out to be a fortuitous and fruitful investment.”

As the first U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge 88 years ago, President Obama should find an interesting mosaic of Cuban military and officials mixing with upstarts like Reynier and Cuba’s micro-entrepreneurs trying to get ahead. As most Cubans earn less than a dollar a day in state wages, many will seek ways to supplement family income in its new ‘mixed economy.’ Hopefully, our Pacific NW organizations will continue to play a part.

Contact:   Stephen E. Murphy, Senior Advisor, Latin America, Pacific NW Advisors

Email:   [email protected]