Though U.S. firms have relatively low representation, their appearance marks the first in the fair’s 33-year history.
Cuba’s first international trade fair — which opened Monday — since renewed relations with the U.S. will be the biggest in a decade, with 10 more countries participating than last year.
Known as FIHAV, the fair is one of the most important business events in the Caribbean. It aims to increase exports and encourage investment within the country.
The week-long affair opened with the Labiofam Cuba Business Group, compromised of companies across the biopharmaceutical industry, as well as a committee promoting Cuba-Russia business relations, including growing commercial ties in energy, steel and medicine.
Though the most-represented country was Spain, followed by several Latin American countries, all eyes were on the U.S. participants. It was the first time in the fair’s 33-year history the U.S. had participated in. However, turnout was not as high as U.S. entrepreneurs had hoped due to difficulties booking flights and reserving hotel rooms.
“Americans who are used to coming into a country and moving things very quickly, they are being fairly assertive and aggressive and finding that doesn’t work well,” Scott Gilbert, advisor to companies on the Cuban system, told USA Today.
Out of about 900 companies, a third are Cuba-based and a few dozen are U.S.-based. While some are multinationals, like Caterpillar and Cargill, others are small and considering opening offices in Cuba to employ Cubans.
Former congressperson Jim Moran pointed out to USA Today that U.S. businesspeople looking to pounce on new markets should not assume Cubans are desperate to work for U.S. companies.
“They don’t want to just be a satellite economy of the United States,” he said. “They’re very much aware of the inequalities here, how a small fraction of our population owns most of our wealth and earns most of our income. They’re frustrated with communism … but they want everybody to count, and they don’t want the marginalization of large portions of their society.”
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The U.S.-Cuba Business Council, inaugurated in September to remove commercial barriers across the Gulf of Mexico, will hold its first board meeting this week. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched the body to, among other things, “urge the Cuban government to continue to make policy changes to lessen government control or ownership of Cuban businesses,” according to its website.
After several meetings with Cuban President Raul Castro, the chamber’s vice president of the Americas Jodi Bond told USA Today that the island country has a good number of reforms to pass before it meets U.S. regulatory standards in foreign investment.
Last week, the United Nations voted overwhelmingly against the U.S. embargo of Cuba, which can only be repealed by Congress. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez estimated that his country has lost US$833.7 billion due to the blockade, and both Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama are in support of lifting it entirely.