By Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald (TNS)
MIAMI — Regulations governing the United States’ new commercial opening toward Cuba were announced in January, but so far there have been few takers.
Most businesses are still kicking the tires when it comes to Cuba and trekking to the island, often with lawyers in tow, to assess the opportunities and risks. A trade delegation led by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week, however, reported progress had been made on deals in the telecom and health care fields — two areas where U.S. businesses are allowed to engage with the Cuban government under the new U.S. Cuba policy.
But even when Cuba is removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation that carries some financial sanctions, analysts say they don’t expect it will set off a business stampede, either.
“I think people are re-evaluating, but they are waiting until the 45-day waiting period is up before taking the next step,” said Fernando Capablanca, managing director of White Cap Consulting Group and president of the Cuban Banking Study Group. “I think everyone wants to play it very safe — what’s 45 days after 55 years?”
In December, President Barack Obama announced a new policy of engaging Cuba after more than half a century of trying to bring about change through isolating the island, and on April 14, he informed Congress that he intended to remove Cuba from the terrorism list, starting the clock ticking on the waiting period.
With the Cuban-American delegation saying last week that it wouldn’t be mounting a challenge to the de-listing, Cuba is set to come off the list in late May. The United States put Cuba on the list in 1982 at a time when Havana was promoting armed revolution in Latin America and Africa.
Stephen F. Propst, a Washington attorney, said the de-listing will be an important step in the U.S.-Cuba normalization process, but he expects it will have limited immediate impact on economic activity between the United States and the island.
However, he said, “It’s a very important step to move forward on diplomatic relations between the two countries.” Keeping Cuba on the list, Propst said, is a “label, largely a version of diplomatic name-calling.”
Andy Fernandez, leader of Holland & Knight’s Cuba Action Team, said removing Cuba from the terrorism list removes a “barricade, a roadblock” that has made U.S. companies hesitant to even engage in legal business dealings with Cuba.
Under Obama’s new Cuba policy, Americans can trade select goods with private Cuban entrepreneurs, supply private farmers in Cuba, sell building supplies to private individuals, and participate in Internet and telecom projects that will improve the connectivity of the Cuban people.
But the impact of the de-listing will be muted because there’s still a thicket of sanctions imposed under the embargo, the Helms-Burton Act and other U.S. laws that remain in effect, including provisions that require U.S. banks to block transactions with Cuba or Cuban nationals who aren’t in the permitted category.
New regulations allow a bank to reject such transactions. “That makes a lot of difference if you’re the person whose money is blocked and you can’t get it back,” said lawyer Patricia Hernandez during a Cuba seminar organized by the Florida International Bankers Association and the Cuban Banking Study Group last week.
“The overall risk with Cuba will remain as long as the embargo is in place,” Andy Fernandez said.
Lifting the embargo “will be the new elephant in the room in future talks,” said Peter Schechter, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin American Center at the Atlantic Council.
The United States and Cuba are currently negotiating to renew diplomatic ties and open embassies. So far, there have been three rounds of talks.
“Cuomo’s trip illustrates not only the eagerness but also the frustration that U.S. governors feel — the 1996 Helms-Burton Act handicaps their states’ trade opportunities.” he said.
The embargo, which was phased in gradually starting in 1960, was codified through Helms-Burton and cannot be totally lifted without an act of Congress.
Companies such as Netflix, IDT, which has begun offering direct telephone service to Cuba rather than making the final connection through a third party, and lodging company Airbnb, which is working with private Cuban casas particulares or bed and breakfasts, have staked out territory in Cuba. MasterCard and American Express also say they want to allow U.S. customers to use their cards in Cuba.
But not one bank has announced its intention to support the cards — meaning authorized American travelers still can’t use plastic issued by a U.S. bank to pay for their hotel and other expenses in Cuba.
However, MasterCard Vice Chairman Walt Macnee, who took part in the Cuomo trip, told USA Today that he had two meetings with Cuba’s central bank to pave the way for use of U.S. cards in Cuba. “Now we’re going to work with each of the banks individually and make some progress there,” he said.
(c)2015 Miami Herald, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
A protester holds up an American and a Cuban flag in Miami, Florida on December 20, 2014 (AFP Photo/Joe Raedle)