Friday, September 15, 2006

Expert touts changes in Cuba trade

Posted on Fri, Sep. 15, 2006

Herald Staff Writer

PALMETTO - Those who thought that the nation of Cuba has been existing in an economic vacuum under Fidel Castro's thumb are sadly mistaken.

And anyone who thought that rumors of Castro's death would immediately cause a shift in relations between Cuba and the United States would also be wrong.

That was the message delivered by an expert in Cuban trade at the Port Manatee Propeller Club on Thursday night at the Bradenton Yacht Club.

Kirby Jones, president of the U.S. Cuba Trade Association and Alamar Associates, a company that facilitates trade between United States businesses and Cuba, said the island country of 11 million people has changed vastly in the last decade.

Those changes include "young Cubans walking around with New York Yankee baseball caps and Nike shoes," Jones told the audience. "Hard currency is now legal. Billboards advertise commercial products. Beach resorts by the mile. Cell phones and direct-dialing telephone service to anywhere in the world including the United States. CNN, Disney, ESPN on the hotel televisions."

While the United States has kept Cuba at arm's length during Castro's reign, other countries are doing swift business there, Jones said.

"(There is) bottled water and ice cream with Switzerland, port management with Spain, beer production with Canada, construction companies with France," Jones said. "Tourism generates $2.7 billion a year. It is the largest source of hard currency."

Jones said Cuba was a one-product country for centuries but now "sugar is no longer even a factor in the generation of foreign currency."

And Castro isn't the singular entity some would make him out to be, Jones said.

"Fidel Castro can go out at 10 o'clock in the morning and rail against the evils of capitalism, and that is the real Fidel Castro," Jones said. "He will turn around at 2 o'clock in the afternoon and sign another joint venture. That is also the real Fidel Castro."

Jones, who once served as a political and business adviser to Sen. Robert Kennedy and George McGovern, said the United States is making a mistake by not getting in on the action.

But the United States is mistaken to think it can impose its political terms on Cuba in terms of doing business with the country, Jones said.

"If you asked me to name a single person of any type of authority (in Cuba), I could not think of a single person that would invite the United States in to do anything," Jones said.

Currently, the United States is allowed to export agricultural and food products to Cuba under 2000 legislation signed by former President Bill Clinton.

"Cuba has signed contracts worth $2 billion with U.S. companies," Jones said. "Twenty-three different ports have been used to ship goods to Cuba around the country."

But for the United States to optimize its trade opportunities it has to make a "fundamental decision" that its 45-year-old anti-trade policy with Cuba has not worked.

"And then we have a different situation," Jones said. "But until that fundamental decision is made, the U.S. is going to be a bystander and the rest of the world is going to move in in spades, and has."

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