Prince George’s County, Md. officials and businesses will embark on a 5-day exploratory mission to Cuba in November. The goal is to uncover current and future businesses opportunities that could emerge if Congress lifts the longstanding embargo against the communist island.
Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III will lead a delegation on an exploratory mission to Cuba in November. (Courtesy photo)
The inaugural trip, which starts Nov. 15, gives local entrepreneurs and county leaders a chance to meet Cuban officials and lay the groundwork that could lead to business deals later. County officials will also learn about and meet leaders from Cuba’s education and art scene for future exchanges and collaborations. The trip will target the following industries: information technology, hospitality, engineering, construction, and medical/life sciences.
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III will lead the delegation of approximately 20 business people and an undetermined number of county officials. The trip costs $5,850 per person, a hefty price tag that includes round-trip airfare from Baltimore-Washington International Airport to José Marti International Airport in Havana, five nights at the historic Hotel Nacional, meals, security, transportation, entertainment, and more.
Entrepreneurs are responsible for their own costs. Meanwhile, sponsorships will cover county employees’ expenses, said Lori Valentine, director of communications at the Prince George’s County Economic Development Corporation.
They’ll spend the first full day getting face time with Havana Mayor Martha Hernandez, representatives of ProCuba, which promotes foreign trade and investment on the island, the Ministry of Commerce and Trade, the Ministry of Foreign Relations, and the Chamber of Commerce of Cuba. Other days will focus on the arts and education, urban planning, and Havana’s history. Tour options include visiting the Viñales Tobacco Farm, Old Havana, and the biggest fort in the Americas.
Interestingly, Margaret Pulles Machado, a distant relative of former Cuban President Gerardo Machado, is organizing the county’s trip through her company, VamosGlobal.
The trip is part of Baker’s long-term plan for international business development that he released this year. Future trade missions will involve Canada, a return trip to China, Mexico, South Africa, and South Korea. The Cuba trip will likely be the first of several to the island.
The mission trip would commence nearly two years after President Barack Obama an ease to relations with Cuba at the end of 2014, following more than 50 years of hostility between the former Cold War enemies. Obama’s subsequent Cuba policy eased the decades-old embargo in areas like travel, trade, telecommunications, financial services, and remittances. The overall embargo will remain in place, even after Obama’s term, and can only be removed with Congressional action.
Following Obama’s historic announcement, business and government-led delegations from across the United States and the world descended on Cuba, seeking deals of their own. Jim Coleman, president and CEO of Prince George’s County Economic Development Corporation, insists the county isn’t too late to the game.
“Would it have been nice if we went down there last year? Maybe so, but this is still early in the relationship, very early,” Coleman said. “And so the county executive is doing the right thing by getting this trip put together right now, so we don’t feel like we’re behind one bit. Now if we waited five years, now that’s too late.”
There have been many trade visits from U.S. groups since the rapprochement, but John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, argues most haven’t amounted to much, since Cuban officials are not interested in transactions that require them to invest significant amounts of money.
“The vast majority of representatives of U.S. companies who have visited Cuba have not done so because of a specific focus – they’ve done it for general interest,” Kavulich said. “If they were going down for specific transactional opportunities then, based upon what’s happened within the last 19 months, most of them wouldn’t go.”
Javier Torres, president and CEO of The Corporate Group LLC in Prince George’s County, knows he can’t sell his janitorial products and chemicals in Cuba until the embargo falls. Even so, he’s going on the trip to build relationships with Cuban officials to use the island as a hub for Latin America and the Caribbean once it’s legal for him to do so. “I want to be positioned so that two, three, four years from now our company is one of the many that will be doing business with the local Cuban government and the local (private sector) businesses in Cuba,” he said.