Entrepreneurs embrace new possibilities on doing business with Cuba

Mario Perez, left, a forensic accountant, and Bill Borras, a general contractor, at Thursday’s forum, held by New Jersey’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, on Cuban business possibilities. michael karas/staff photographer

One businessman was interested in the commercial possibilities of helping Cubans renovate their homes.

Another had put together a $2 million investment fund, and was looking for opportunities in the Caribbean country.

A third attendee, a Cuban-American, had no business plan, but he came to see what the changes might mean for his native land.

The three reflected the diverse interests of about 100 people who attended a lively forum Thursday night in Lyndhurst on doing business with Cuba. The event sought to focus on opportunities in the communist nation in the future, but it sometimes got tangled up in the past.

The event, organized by the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, was designed to provide information about the business terrain in Cuba as a result of President Obama’s executive orders in December aimed at normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations. The orders took effect in January.

Concerns ranged from caution at the possible risks to a desire to jump in quickly. And some inquiries appeared to be shaped by Cuba’s turbulent history with the U.S. — especially after two representatives of the Cuban government spoke of their belief in Obama’s plan, and how it could help the people in both countries.

A matter of risk

“There are laws in this country that protect me and protect my investment,” said Jose Sabater of Elizabeth. The Cuban-American said he came to the forum to find out the effect of the changes on his native country.

“What kind of guarantees does the Cuban government have in place” to protect investments in that country? Sabater asked.

Marco A. Gonzalez, a Paramus attorney who gave a presentation on what companies can and can’t do under Obama’s rules, replied that he has helped clients do business in Cuba, and other countries, for years, and hasn’t found clients to be at greater risk of losing their investment in Cuba than anywhere else.

Asked a similar question earlier, one of the Cuban government representatives, Ovidio Roque, dismissed such concerns, and said his country is very keen on making its relationship with the U.S. work, and it wants to foster entrepreneurs and an independent business sector.

“If you ask an entrepreneur what is the main obstacle to a business in Cuba, it’s not the Cuban government,” it’s the difficulty of getting materials to run a business, he said. He drew a laugh from the audience when he said independent restaurants complain more that they can’t get Adobo Goya — a seasoning popular with Latinos that’s made by the Secaucus-based food manufacturer.

Cuba as a ‘hybrid’

Frank Argote-Freyre, an assistant professor in Latin American history at Kean University, predicted that Cuba would end up as a “hybrid” of capitalism and communism, adding, “I think we will see economic reforms.”

Some attendees were clearly motivated by the prospect of early entry into a developing market with which they had personal ties.

Bill Borras, a general building contractor from Jackson, whose father left Cuba in 1937, said he believed money could be made fixing up dilapidated homes, or buying and selling them.

“I think it’s going to be lucrative, not only in my industry,” Borras said, adding that whatever the U.S. was going to achieve with the embargo had been achieved.

“It’s time,” he said of Obama’s initiative. “I don’t think we are going to be getting anything more out of the embargo.”

Mario Perez, a forensic accountant from Warren Township, said he came to see if the business environment is ripe for him to invest a $2 million venture fund he has put together.

“It’s important to start peeling the onion, and really investigate what’s going on,” said Perez, whose parents left Cuba in the 1950s. “It’s the initial stages of doing proper due diligence in our country.”

He said he has no specific investments in mind, but he suggested that putting money into real estate, a resort, or imports and exports could be possible.

U.S. action urged

Some attendees, however, felt that U.S. businesses may need to move quickly to seize a share of the market, a point underlined by the Cuban representatives, who said investors in countries that don’t have laws restricting business with Cuba are already backing projects there.

“I don’t think we have missed the boat,” said Freddy Rambay, the New Jersey representative for MAP Communications, a Virginia call center company. “But we need to take steps to ensure we have our feet in the water before it’s too late.”


Northjersey.com, March 1, 2015

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