Cuban-Americans celebrated in the streets of Miami Monday night after learning that Fidel Castro had undergone abdominal surgery and turned over the presidency of Cuba to his brother Raul. And eager businesses eyeing the Cuban market cheered right alongside them.
While Cuban exiles greeted the news from Havana as a sign that Castro's nearly five-decade rule could finally be coming to an end, others turned an eye toward the possibility of billions of dollars in new business and trade in a post-Castro Cuba. But are they jumping the gun?
"Basically, we are trying to alert our clients, and those who have expressed interest in doing business in the future, to take their three-ring binders with their strategic plans for doing something in Cuba in the future and take it out of their bookshelves and put it on the table and remove some of the dust," said Teo Babun. His consulting practice in South Florida provides strategic services for businesses that want to work in Cuba at some point in the future.
The island nation, only 90 miles from Key West, Fla., has been off-limits to most U.S. businesses for 45 years. Despite the U.S. embargo, though, some trade does exist between the two nations.
Health care products from the United States can be exported to Cuba, along with food and agricultural products such as chicken, corn and rice. Last year agricultural exports totaled more than $350 million, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Despite a travel ban that prohibits Americans from visiting Cuba as tourists, thousands make the trek through third countries each year, pouring U.S. money into the Cuban economy. That exchange would likely increase should the trade and travel sanctions be eased or eliminated. And Cubans would likely return the favor, sending fruits, vegetables and even the most American of commodities -- baseball players -- to the United States.
Baseball scouts took notice after Cuba's second-place finish in the World Baseball Classic this past spring. There have been some reports that as many as 200 current Cuban players could join professional baseball teams in the United States and train alongside fellow countrymen like the New York Mets' Eli Marrero and Orlando Hernandez.
Since trade with its neighbor to the north has been limited by Congress, Cuba has developed commercial ties with businesses in other countries. Cuba exports large quantities of nickel for manufacturing in addition to sugar, tobacco, seafood and fresh fruit. It imports oil, machinery, chemicals and food. According to the CIA World Fact Book, Cuba imports $6.9 billion in goods and services annually.
Those imports come primarily from Venezuela, China and Spain. In recent years, the government of Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, has developed close economic and political ties with the Castro's Cuba. According to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, that relationship has led to a decline in agricultural imports from U.S. farms.
Venezuela is the third-largest supplier of oil to the United States. Chavez has used the wealth generated from his country's oil fields to provide services to the poor and needy in Venezuela. Working with Castro, he has done the same for Cubans. In return for subsidized oil and other needed products, Cuba sends teachers and doctors to Venezuela.