HAVANA, Cuba — Not yet, but someday, perhaps even soon.
That’s the message 75 businessmen, lawyers and educators from south Louisiana are taking home from Cuba after a weeklong trip aimed at re-establishing trade and cultural links that were broken after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. The trip ended Saturday.
The Louisiana delegation came to Cuba riding a wave of optimism after President Barack Obama announced in December that he and Cuban President Raul Castro wanted to normalize relations between the two countries and liberalize trade ties.
Cuba is a communist nation where the government owns most of the land and buildings. But in recent years, officials have begun to allow residents to rent out rooms to tourists, to own their apartments and to open small restaurants called “paladares” that cater to tourists.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government, largely at the behest of Cuban-American exiles in south Florida, has maintained a trade embargo since the early 1960s and does not allow Cuba to buy American goods unless the Cuban government pays cash first.
The decades of frosty relations have hurt New Orleans perhaps more than any other city. The Crescent City was Cuba’s biggest trading partner before the embargo, according to the Port of New Orleans, and was widely considered as “the Gateway to the Americas.”
Michael Wilkinson, president of French Quarter Realty, has traveled to Cuba before and went on this trip to gauge what is happening now.
On Thursday, Wilkinson, intrigued by the idea of having a second home in Cuba, looked at an apartment in Old Havana that was listed for sale. He learned, however, that he would run afoul of the U.S. trade embargo and Cuban laws that require special permits to live in the country.
For the same reasons, Wilkinson concluded that he couldn’t rent a small apartment in Old Havana as a fallback option.
“Everybody who loves New Orleans would love Old Havana,” Wilkinson said. “It’s very much like the French Quarter, only bigger. And the Cuban people are wonderful. My fantasy is to be a conduit for people in New Orleans to (travel to) Old Havana. But I’ve learned that we’re still far away from having significant American investment in Cuba.”
Wilkinson paused and added, “When I came to Cuba in 1997, the (legal) issues were the same. In 18 years, we’ve moved forward a bit, but not enough. That’s the discouraging part. I don’t see anything happening in the next five years.”
Saul Newsome, a Baton Rouge lawyer, does not expect much more trade between the United States and Cuba.
“From an import-export perspective, it’s still a tough market,” said Newsome, who spent a semester at the University of Havana while in law school. “Cuba wants easier financing terms, but U.S. companies can’t do that because of the U.S. law.”
Guy Williams, the chief executive officer of New Orleans-based Gulf Coast Bank & Trust, came to Cuba to determine the prospects for his bank doing business here, as it does in Central America.
“If you look around, you see a tremendous need for infrastructure of every sort,” he said.
Most buildings in Havana appear rundown, even derelict, because neither the government nor the people who inhabit them have the money to fix them up.
“It’s great to see the old cars,” Williams said, referring to the 1950s-era American cars that populate the streets. “But who wants to drive them as their primary vehicle? Anyone would want to see a more modern transportation system. This city could be the gem of the Americas. But you won’t invest if you don’t think you’ll make money. There has to be a connection between the Bank of Cuba and the Federal Reserve so you can exchange funds.”
Williams added, “It’s one of those things where when it changes, it will change fast. The founding fathers of the Cuban Revolution will go away soon.”
Fidel Castro, who has been sidelined by illness in recent years, is 88. Raul Castro, who replaced him, is 83.
“As the next generation comes to power, they’ll look outward,” Williams said. “Maybe it will take five years. The Cuban people are definitely eager.”
Mike Shelton, an Alexandria-based businessman who owns 65 Popeyes chicken restaurants in Louisiana and Texas, is definitely eager to begin investing in Cuba.
Shelton, with the assistance of others on the trip, went to Old Havana’s Parque Central on Wednesday to spread the word about Popeyes, in the hopes of opening a restaurant in Cuba one day. Shelton’s group began to hand out 25 orange Popeyes T-shirts with white lettering and 25 Popeyes baseball caps.
That attracted the attention of the men who argue about baseball every day in the park. They swarmed Shelton, his attorney Michael Tudor and New Orleans hotel broker Lenny Wormser. Less than two minutes later, they had given everything away.
“Next time, I’ll bring 1,000 shirts,” Shelton said, as he walked down an Old Havana street thronged with tourists. “I hope to be in business here one day.”
Minutes later, drinking a daiquiri on the rooftop of the Ambos Mundos Hotel, where writer Ernest Hemingway kept a room in the 1930s, Shelton said change is inevitable but needs to be managed.
“You can feel the momentum and the energy, the way we were welcomed,” Shelton said. “But they don’t want to lose their identity, what makes them special. So we should move slowly.”
Wormser, who heads Latter & Blum’s hospitality division, scouted two dozen hotels in Havana for possible purchase, under the assumption that Cuba will one day lift ownership controls. Under current law, the Cuban government can sell a stake in a hotel but retains the majority share.
“Change is occurring,” Wormser said. “I didn’t expect it to be as vibrant. Tourists are from all over. Opportunity is here. The question is when the government will make investors feel financially secure.”