Diplomats, Business People Flood Cuba amid Warmer U.S. Relations

By Garcia, Anne-Marie | The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV), May 11, 2015 | Go to article overview

Diplomats, Business People Flood Cuba amid Warmer U.S. Relations


Garcia, Anne-Marie, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV)


HAVANA - Tourists in shorts and sandals aren't the only foreigners flooding Havana these days. Top diplomats from Japan, the European Union, Italy, the Netherlands and Russia have visited the island in recent months in bids to stake out or maintain ties with an island that suddenly looks like a brighter economic prospect amid warming U.S.-Cuba relations.

On Sunday night, Francois Hollande becomes the first French president to ever visit communist Cuba, bringing along five ministers and two dozen business people, including the heads of Pernod-Ricard, Cuba's partner in exporting Havana Club rum, and grain exporter Soufflet.

"It's impossible to deny that diplomatic detente between Washington and Havana has accelerated the process of normalization between Cuba and Europe, said Salim Lamrani, a Cuba expert at France's University of La Reunion.

Cuba was once accustomed primarily to visits from leftist Latin American partners and smaller allies in Africa and the Caribbean.

Now, virtually all of the visiting diplomatic delegations are accompanied by high-powered business people interested in Cuba's push to draw more than $8 billion in new foreign investment as part of a broader, gradual economic liberalization. The delegations are also working to ensure that Cuba doesn't forget its old friends in what eventually could be a new era of increased business with the United States.

"We've never stopped believing in and betting on Cuba, said Jean- Francois Lepy, the commercial director of Soufflet, which has been in Cuba for 30 years. Sixty French firms have active operations on the island.

Spain, the Netherlands, Italy and France are Cuba's biggest trading partners within the European Union, which is the island's second-largest economic partner with a combined $4.65 billion a year in trade in food, machinery and other goods.

Top partner Venezuela accounts for $7 billion, mostly highly subsidized oil.

Like virtually all European business people who have established a foothold in Cuba despite its labyrinthine bureaucracy and unpredictable business environment, Lepy said the U. …

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