The recent uptick in the number of events focused on business opportunities in Cuba is hard to miss and was the focus of the Cuba Opportunity Summit, which was hosted by Knowledge@Wharton, the Wharton School’s online business journal, last April, as well as The Brookings Institution’s panel “Re-thinking Cuba: New Opportunities for Development,“ which was held in June.
Closer to home, the World Trade Center Institute, in Baltimore, held a “Taste of Business in Cuba“ event in July.
The frequency of these events begs the question: “What opportunities might Cuba present for Maryland companies?“
Back in the Day
It is important to note that, prior to the Cuban Revolution, the ties between the United States and Cuba were strong and deep, dating back to the 19th century. In the 1950s, close to 70% of the imports into Cuba were from the United States. In addition, Cuba was the largest market in the Caribbean, and U.S. companies had large interests in Cuban agriculture, railroads and tourism.
The era of hostility between the U.S. and Cuba began with the culmination of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when the U.S.-supported Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by the “26th of July Movement,“ led by Fidel Castro.
With Castro at the helm in Cuba, the relationship between the two countries deteriorated quickly; the U.S. suspended the sugar quota in 1960, followed by Cuban nationalization of U.S. assets, the severing of diplomatic relations between the countries and the U.S. institution of a trade embargo in 1962.
Today, the U.S. embargo remains in place, and Cuba remains governed by the Communist Party of Cuba. But during the past six months, we have seen dramatic changes in U.S. policy towards Cuba. In December 2014, the U.S. and Cuba announced that they would move towards normalizing relations and re-establishing diplomatic ties, a move that was largely received with applause within the United States and across Latin America.
The announcement was accompanied by a prisoner swap between the two countries, a pledge from the United States to ease restrictions on travel, banking and remittances and a pledge from Cuba to expand Internet access. This progress has continued in 2015, with the United States removing Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Then, in April, Cuba participated in the Summit of the Americas for the first time. President Barack Obama and Cuban Premier Raul Castro shared a historic and much-publicized handshake, a tangible symbol of the improving relations between the two countries.
Seeds of Hope
Signs of hope for improved relations between the two countries came when Raul Castro, Fidel Castro’s brother, assumed office in 2008. He began to institute reforms that involved the removal of restrictions on purchases, limited land reform, the encouragement of some private enterprise and opportunities for foreign investment. In November 2014, the Cuban government released a report called, “Opportunities for Foreign Investment in Cuba,“ which seeks to attract $8 billion in foreign investment to the island nation.
In the wake of the improving political and economic relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, the report contains many opportunities for Maryland companies.
The report identifies priorities both inside the recently constructed Mariel Free Trade Zone and in the broader Cuban economy. In the Mariel Free Trade Zone, there are export-oriented opportunities in biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
The BioMaryland Center reports that Maryland is home to one of the largest life sciences/biotechnology clusters in the U.S., which includes individuals working in more than 500 companies, 15 federal facilities and 16 colleges and universities.
See It Soon
Outside the Mariel Free Trade Zone the report highlights opportunities in the areas of energy, agriculture and tourism, among other sectors. Maryland, as the home to several hospitality companies — Choice Hotels, Courtyard by Marriott, JW Marriott hotels, Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. and Host Hotels & Resorts — has clear opportunities in the tourism sector. The agro-food sector also provides opportunities for Maryland companies, such as McCormick & Co. and Perdue Farms.
The past several months have seen trade missions to Cuba organized by delegations from several states, including Pennsylvania, New York and California.
Educational opportunities also abound. The Sellinger School at Loyola University Maryland is considering a study tour to Cuba for undergraduate students in 2016.
All told, the opportunities for Maryland in Cuba are real.
Marianne Ward-Peradoza is the associate dean for academics at Loyola University Maryland’s Sellinger School of Business and Management, which has a campus in Columbia. She can be contacted at 410-617-5557 and [email protected].