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Are you Americans?... We’re going to be friends!

Posted By Gail Rutkowski, Thursday, March 31, 2016
Updated: Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Those were the words I heard from a Cuban couple on my first night in Havana. Americans don’t often hear comments that warm and welcoming in other parts of the world and it was a great start to my trip.

I was fortunate to be able to join the TIA Logistics delegation, spending four days touring Cuba. The purpose of the trip to was to learn more about the opportunities and challenges of doing business in Cuba. Our visit coincided with President Obama’s historic visit, the first from a sitting President in over 80 years. Our group took advantage of our time together to learn from Cuban scholars, officials and entrepreneurs about how Cubans currently do business and what their expectations are for American economic engagement with Cuba when it happens.

The Cuban people are particularly warm and friendly and anxious to talk to Americans. As many of you may already suspect, much of the country appears to be stuck in a time warp…from their 50’s era cars, and crumbling infrastructure to run down hotels, it will be a long time before Cuba can return to its former glory. However, evidence of that former glory can be seen all over Havana. The old cars that crowd the streets used to symbolize a stagnant nation, now they are rented out to tourists anxious to recapture their youth. The fact that many of the old cars are still running is a testament to the ingenuity of the Cuban people. I actually rode in a ’55 Chevy Bel Air with a Mitsubishi engine! While many of the buildings are run down and some crumbling, you can envision the beauty of the eclectic architecture that once was.

The city is alive with music and art everywhere you turn. There are many live music venues, mostly jazz and Cuban rhythms, but all lively and fun. We were entertained by a young man who graduated from Julliard to a jazz concert where his quartet played Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane while we sat outside under the stars. There are a number of art galleries, but many artists display their wares in the local market place…aisles and aisles of paintings just waiting for buyers.

We took a trip out to the new port at Mariel. The Port of Havana will eventually be shut down to cargo traffic and only handle cruise ships. The new port is state of the art and able to handle the new Panamax vessels. Four gantry cranes (manufactured in China) sit waiting for the ships to come in. The Port of Mariel moved over 330,000 TEUS in 2015 and has capacity to handle 800,000. The port is owned by a French company and managed by a Brit. A Belgium company runs trucks into and out of the Port. It is clear that other nations and multi-national corporations, not subject to the restrictions of the American embargo, are preparing for the likely future influx of American economic activity.

Tours of cultural and historic attractions (including a cigar factory and Nostalgicar ) gave the group a better understanding of the heritage that Cubans are anxious to protect in the event of an American-driven economic boom and of the interaction with American business and organizations up to the 1950’s that shape those anxieties today.

The group came away with a strong sense that major changes are coming to America’s longstanding isolationist policy toward Cuba. I hope both countries are ready to be friends.

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