Suburban companies see opportunity in Cuba

  • Roger Sosa

    Roger Sosa

  • Executive Director Roger Sosa is at the podium during the 2015 Buffalo Grove Lincolnshire Chamber of Commerce board installation lunch earlier this year. Sosa said many chamber members are eager to learn more about Cuba as a new market.

      Executive Director Roger Sosa is at the podium during the 2015 Buffalo Grove Lincolnshire Chamber of Commerce board installation lunch earlier this year. Sosa said many chamber members are eager to learn more about Cuba as a new market. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Netflix is launching its movie and TV show streaming service in Cuba as Internet access in the country improves and credit and debit cards become more widely available.

    Netflix is launching its movie and TV show streaming service in Cuba as Internet access in the country improves and credit and debit cards become more widely available. ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

  • Edwardo Clark, a Cuban-American, holds an American flag and a Cuban flag as he celebrates outside the new Cuban embassy Monday in Washington, D.C.

    Edwardo Clark, a Cuban-American, holds an American flag and a Cuban flag as he celebrates outside the new Cuban embassy Monday in Washington, D.C. ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

  • Cuban-American Gina Gonzalez waves an American flag in front of the United States embassy Monday in Havana, Cuba.

    Cuban-American Gina Gonzalez waves an American flag in front of the United States embassy Monday in Havana, Cuba. ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

  • A homeowner sits in the living room at his home with rooms for rent in Havana, Cuba. The online home-sharing service Airbnb allows American travelers to book lodging in Cuba.

    A homeowner sits in the living room at his home with rooms for rent in Havana, Cuba. The online home-sharing service Airbnb allows American travelers to book lodging in Cuba. ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

 
 
Posted7/22/2015 5:30 AM

Many suburban companies said they are eager to send representatives to visit Cuba and explore new business opportunities in the island country newly opened to Americans.

Yet, with an ongoing trade embargo and underdeveloped infrastructure, Cuba likely won't return to a bustling, vibrant economy for at least 5 to 10 years, said Roger Sosa, executive director of the Buffalo Grove Lincolnshire Chamber of Commerce and a native of Cuba.

 

But those obstacles should not stop suburban business owners and executives from starting now to establish their own relationship with Cuba, he said, adding opportunities are many, he said.

"Businesses have to get in now in order to get things done there," Sosa said. "It will take a long time to get agreements in place between U.S. and Cuban companies because that just doesn't exist now. So they will need to build an infrastructure from the ground up."

This week, the United States opened diplomatic relations with Cuba despite the trade embargo. Some companies leapt into the new arena, with California-based Netflix offering Cuban people subscription service since last February and hospitality company Airbnb offering licensed U.S. travelers the chance to choose from Airbnb listings there.

Members of the Buffalo Grove Lincolnshire chamber are eager to enter the new market and are planning an exploratory trip to Cuba soon, Sosa said. Other companies, including Schaumburg-based Motorola Solutions, Chicago-based United Airlines and others are looking at ways to establish a presence in Cuba.

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"Restored diplomatic relations with Cuba presents business opportunities for many companies, including Motorola Solutions," said Motorola Solutions spokeswoman Ellen Wichman. "We are actively evaluating what those opportunities might be and we know there are still many regulatory and legal aspects to consider, including a remaining U.S. trade embargo. Our global trade compliance team is currently looking at the best way to enter this market."

The road to Cuba is also opening new air transportation, freight, delivery and tourism opportunities, as well.

United Airlines said in a statement that "we look forward to continuing our constructive dialogue with both governments about providing our customers service between our two nations, subject to government approval."

As the country aims to modernize its agricultural, construction and other industries, Peoria-based Caterpillar, with operations in Aurora, Woodridge, Downers Grove and Des Plaines, said it has been one of Cuba's biggest advocates for the last 20 years and has asked the federal government to lift the trade embargo.

Caterpillar executives visited Cuba in April "to better understand the potential market and meet with business and government leaders," Caterpillar Chairman and CEO Doug Oberhelman said in a statement.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Dialogue is a great start. We encourage the president and Congress to work together on the next step -- finally ending the 54-year embargo that has made the 90 miles separating our nations an insurmountable barrier," Oberhelman said. "It is now time to unleash the full power of engagement by fully normalizing relations. Fully integrating Cuba into the global economy will improve the everyday lives of the Cuban people."

Telecommunications, food and medicine also will be sought-after industries to help Cuba, said Phil Levy, adjunct professor of strategy at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

"Their economy is not in the greatest shape and it may take a long while to get it going," Levy said.

It's almost certain that tourism businesses and companies like Oak Brook-based McDonald's would follow, Levy said.

"But they have not fired off the starting gun yet," Levy said. "It may be deferred until Congress lifts the trade embargo. But because the president established the diplomatic relationships first, that just irritated Congress."

Lyndsey Walter, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bruce Rauner, said the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity anticipates increased exports from agricultural and medical products and technologies. It also will work with the U.S. Department of Commerce to ensure opportunities are properly vetted to minimize any risks.

"As the economic sanctions are eased over time, Illinois companies in the insurance, travel and telecommunications industries are well-positioned to benefit from opportunities to engage economically with Cuba," Walter said via email.

In addition, other parts of the Cuban infrastructure needs modernizing, including banking, legal and accounting systems along with reliable and trustworthy checks and balances, Sosa added.

"Most Cubans I know have mixed feelings about all of this and we hope it all does trickle down to the people," Sosa said. "But we also know that the possibility that some people at the top could skim off the top is very high. But this is a lot like Eastern Europe and capitalism needs to happen and it will then dictate the change in the government."

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