Area businesses could benefit greatly from potential opportunities in Cuba

Commerce between Manatee County and Cuba played a significant role in our local economy up until the 1960 Cuban embargo.

During the 19th century, local ranchers and farmers regularly shipped cattle and agriculture products from the banks of the Manatee River to Cuba. With our community’s long history of commerce with this island country located just 90 miles from the Florida coastline, the Manatee Chamber of Commerce’s goal is to inform and educate our business community regarding potential opportunities that result from governmental policy decisions.

In 2015, after the United States and Cuba began efforts to normalize relations between the countries, the Chamber hosted Cuban Ambassador Jose Ramon Cabanas at a VIP luncheon. This was followed by a “Doing Business with Cuba” workshop featuring keynote speaker Jorge Ignacio Fernandez, a Cuban-born American and CEO of Havana Ferry Partners.

As a result of these popular events, strong interest developed among the business community to learn more. With the assistance of Fernandez, we planned a trade mission to Cuba.

The Chamber led a diverse group of local business leaders on this trade mission earlier this month, with the goal of educating and better positioning local businesses for future opportunities. Included among our delegates were representatives from agriculture, entertainment, real estate, food service supplies, road paving, building/construction, engineering, economic development, tires and ferry passenger service.

Our delegation was welcomed by the Chamber of Commerce of the Republic of Cuba and the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment, and we received a comprehensive overview on how to do business with the country.

This was followed by face-to-face dialogue between Chamber delegates and Cuban government representatives from various industry sectors aligned with our individual delegates, including Alimport, the government agency responsible for all imports and exports.

Also among our mission priorities was Feld Entertainment’s examination of some of Cuba’s premier entertainment venues. We received a private tour of the Estadio Latinoamericano baseball stadium and the Estadio Panamericano soccer stadium, in addition to the elegant Gran Teatro de La Habana, an historic performing arts theater.

The Cuban government was clear in recognizing the importance of U.S. investment as they work toward creating the legal framework to invite foreign business investment. Officials emphasized the important markets of pharmaceuticals, agriculture, petroleum, tourism, food services and construction, among others, and explained the process for obtaining a license to do business in Cuba, which some U.S. companies already have acquired.

Although our delegation returned from Cuba with an understanding that numerous obstacles remain until commerce between our two countries is completely normalized, we believe our region and area businesses could benefit greatly with our strategic location, history of trade with this nation and convenient access to Port Manatee.

As communities around the country prepare to engage in business with Cuba with an eye on how trade restrictions are addressed, we will continue to keep our members updated on future possibilities.

I would not be too surprised if Cubans of all ages someday experience the thrill of Monster Jam and discover the enchantment of Disney on Ice or a stage performance of Sesame Street Live.

Bob Bartz, Bradenton Herald

February 26, 2017

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