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Diplomats, business people flood Cuba amid warmer US ties

Diplomats, business people flood Cuba amid warmer US ties
By ANNE-MARIE GARCIA Associated Press

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.S.-Cuba warming represents “a risk
and a challenge” for his business.

That will be even more so if agricultural interests and other U.S.
businesses successfully push Congress to lift the half-century trade
embargo on the Caribbean country.

“If the embargo is lifted, the U.S. market, so much closer to Cuba, will
be an important competitor for us and our exports to Cuba might go
down,” Lepy said.

As a backup plan, his firm is also looking at ways to export processing
technology and know-how to Cuba instead of just grain, he said.

Many foreign business people see the U.S. less as a competitor than as a
potential source of jet-fueled future growth for the businesses they
have established, or hope to establish, in Cuba.

Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida became the highest-level Japanese
official to visit Cuba this month when he brought several dozen
representatives of his country’s automotive, finance, health and tourism
industries on a trip aimed at increasing business.

A British business delegation led last month by Lord Hutton of Furness,
head of Britain’s non-governmental Cuba Initiative, announced $400
million in new agriculture, energy, tourism and other projects. Cuban
state media reported Friday that the Ministry of Tourism had just signed
a deal with China to build a golf course east of Havana.

A French presidential spokesman told reporters this week that while his
government expected no immediate economic benefits from the
highest-level European visit since the Dec. 17 announcement of detente,
“it’s important to be the first.”

“It would be absurd to throw oneself into a race with the United States;
the ties that we have aren’t the same, they’re not even the same scale,”
the French spokesman said on customary condition of anonymity.

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