By Eric Barton
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
The Florida Bar held a symposium in late November that would end up being fortuitous. The subject: doing business with Cuba. The symposium explored primarily what would happen if the United States allowed more investment in the island nation.
Florida International University law professor and Cuba expert José Gabilondo was there. He wasn’t surprised by the topic — business leaders have been speculating on an open Cuba for decades. But what surprised Gabilondo was the broad cross section of business people.
“Usually people who come to these Florida Bar seminars are academics and lawyers, but these were businessmen, cattle ranchers and bankers,” Gabilondo recalls. “These are people who wouldn’t waste their time unless they saw a benefit.”
What they learned that day may turn out handy now, after President Obama announced this week that his administration will begin to normalize relations with Cuba. The president outlined a new future that will allow more U.S. businesses to operate in Cuba, including telecommunications companies and banks. Just exactly what will be allowed isn’t clear, but already many Florida businesses are no doubt wondering how they can cash in.
As the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting found in July 2013, Miami will likely not initially be the Cuban trade partner that some might expect. Even though the city is known for its exile community and proximity to the communist nation, anti-Fidel Castro sentiment there will likely keep businesses from being the first to explore the new rules, Gabilondo said.
“In Florida, you have to realize it’s Miami and then it’s every other city,” Gabilondo said. “Businesses in Miami are going to be reluctant, but businesses elsewhere area already thinking about how they can benefit.”
One example of that was clear this week, when Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado announced he would fight any attempt to put a Cuban consulate in his city, according to the Miami Herald. “In Miami, it would be a slap in the face to the hundreds of thousands of victims of the Castro tyranny that live here,” Curbelo told the Herald.
Meanwhile, Tampa has been courting the Cuban market and is prepared for the president’s changes, said Patrick Manteiga, owner of the Cuban-focused Tampa newspaper La Gaceta.
“We’re going to see some immediate speculation on how we sit here in Tampa with these rules,” Manteiga said from his office in Ybor City, Tampa’s traditionally Cuban neighborhood.
As soon as the new rules are spelled out, Manteiga predicts Florida law firms, telecommunications businesses, and shipping companies will develop plans on how to get into Cuba.
Banks may see the most immediate benefit. Obama announced that U.S. debit and credit cards can soon be used in Cuba. But before that can happen, banks here will have to study how to hook into Cuban banks, which have been isolated from the networks that connect the rest of the world.
“I don’t think you’re going to see cases of drywall going down immediately,” Manteiga said. “But I would expect that banks are already talking about hiring people who can help them connect their systems to Cuba.”
In Tampa or Jacksonville, advertising for an employee to help connect a bank to Cuba might seem routine. But in Miami, such an ad could bring protests, Manteiga said. He points to the reactions to the Obama announcement: Tampa Republicans spoke against the president’s decision in measured tones, while Miami politicians including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio who took a hard line, and at times combative, approach.
“You’ve got the Rubios out there screaming about this, and I think that’s going to scare a lot of Miami businesses from getting on board,” Manteiga said.
While Miami businesses may not be among the first to benefit from the changes, Gabilondo suggests that will change over time. After these rules become simply the way business is done, more Miami companies will give in.
“If you’re a businessperson, you have to look at this announcement and say, this is not an issue of whether Cuba is going to open up – but when,” Gabilondo said.