HAVANA — With a castoff pizza oven churning out pies, Marialena Perez aspires to be the Domino’s of Havana one day, with lofty dreams of a chain of stores, maybe even a branch in the United States.
Now, if only the United States — and Cuba — would deliver.
More than three months after Cuba and the United States announced a historic thaw and the Obama administration loosened regulations to support private businesses like hers, Ms. Perez still races across town to find basic ingredients and jokes about bringing an oven back from the United States in her luggage on a coming trip.
“The biggest problem we have is supplies,” she said. “They are expensive or you can’t find them, especially an oven. So I was hoping we would have relations right away.”
Interactive Feature | More Cuba Coverage Highlights from The Times’s coverage of the historic developments in relations between the United States and Cuba.
In theory, the new rules would allow for support of small business like hers. But business experts say that a lack of clarity on the new rules, lingering questions about financial transactions and remaining provisions of the longstanding trade embargo — coupled with the Cubans’ slow approach to making deals — have made the big opening more like a crack.
As the United States and Cuba inch closer to re-establishing formal diplomatic ties — a move many have expected to be announced before a regional summit meeting begins Friday in Panama — the biggest change in Cuba so far appears to be a windfall of new visitors.
Bringing a badly needed infusion of cash, curious Americans fill hotels, private inns and sidewalks for a look at the country “before everything changes,” as Marvin Stein, a teacher from a Chicago suburb, said while strolling the seafront walkway.
Conan O’Brien did a show here. Paris Hilton visited for a cigar festival, taking a selfie with one of Fidel Castro’s sons that became a social media sensation.
Netflix announced that it would begin streaming here, a largely symbolic move in a country where few have access to broadband. Airbnb, the web-based service for renting local residents’ homes to tourists, now lists private Cuban inns, though shoddy Internet connections on the island and the company’s commission on transactions may dampen its use.
Charter flights have started from New York and New Orleans, but regularly scheduled air service from the United States has only been discussed. A limited number of telephone calls now route directly to the United States, but a big breakthrough in telecommunications, like allowing the sale of American cellphones or Internet equipment, has yet to occur.
The Obama administration’s loosening of travel and trade regulations to spur more exchanges with Cuba, while not fully lifting the congressionally imposed embargo, sought a form of American influence beyond the punishment of sanctions.
“The U.S. business community can help promote a more prosperous #Cuba that respects the universal rights of all its citizens,” Roberta S. Jacobson, the State Department’s top diplomat for the hemisphere, said on Twitter last week after attending a business conference in Manhattan. “It will be the people of #Cuba who drive reforms, which is why U.S. has taken steps to increase flow of resources, information to Cubans.”
But the euphoria that greeted news of the overture to Cuba in December has receded into a sobering reality of “coulds” — agriculture could be helped in a big way; companies could build hotels or resorts; credit cards could be used soon — that have yet to be realized in a significant way.
“How safe is it, business-wise, to do something in Cuba?” said an American lawyer who has been fielding a flood of inquiries from the private sector and spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her business. “What if there is a change in administration in the U.S. in 2016? What happens now if capital goes in and there is a change on the part of Cuba? You never know if the Cubans are going to change their mind. I think there are a lot of unknowns because this is a whole new train.”
The lack of an American Embassy here and Cuba’s presence on a State Department roster of nations that sponsor terrorism have also scared off potential investors and left the Cubans, though suddenly not the pariah they once were in American business circles, reluctant to have serious discussions about the sort of business arrangements they have with foreign companies, mainly from Europe.
“Cuba feels, ‘I don’t want to start negotiating until I can trade with you,’” said Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat now living here.
“Most probably, we are at the stage where we are testing the water and seeing what there is,” he added. “We have to be careful with all these kinds of offers. A company might have a poor environmental record or a bad record of exploiting workers.”
After almost 55 years under the embargo, analysts said, the Cuban government has few specialists it trusts to discuss and evaluate commerce with the United States, and they have been overwhelmed with political, government and business delegations clamoring for face time and a look around here.
The go-slow approach here has meant that a meeting announced in January between members of the Cuban government and a delegation of Commerce and Treasury department officials to discuss Mr. Obama’s loosening of regulations has yet to be scheduled. American officials said they were confident that it would still take place.
“There isn’t a major Fortune 500 company that does not have a Cuba working group or some sign of interest because the possible reality is there will be trade and investment with Cuba,” said Mark Entwistle, a former Canadian ambassador to Cuba who now advises business clients on Cuba.
“We have to wait for both sides to educate each other on what the new regulations are and what remains in place, and Cuba has to decide to make known what it actually needs,” he said. “We are still fairly early in the process, but I think there will be opportunity for U.S. businesses at the end of the day.”
At the same time, Mr. Entwistle said, business and investment lawyers are poring over the mash-up of laws in the existing trade embargo, hunting for booby-traps that could imperil any deals.
If someone wants to sell an oven or other goods to Ms. Perez, for example, does it matter that all imports are controlled by a Cuban state company, which could collect fees that would help prop up the Castro government?
“There is still some broad confusion what you can do and can’t do,” Mr. Entwistle said.
Still, expectations remain high that the arrival of American capital and visitors will attract other foreign spending to the island, draw more investors to take part in the growing market and, many hope, improve the quality of life for Cubans.
At the island’s only free Wi-Fi spot — funded for the past few months by the artist known as Kcho at a cultural center he runs — young people sighed as they fought to capture the signal and slowly, ever so slowly, check their email, Facebook pages and YouTube videos.
“I think this shows where we are headed, the future,” said Lieban Esthir, a 27-year-old mechanic, who was using the Wi-Fi to exchange emails with a friend in the United States. “Everybody thinks the opening with the Americans will improve a lot of things, even the Internet. Let’s hope so.”
Ms. Perez, the pizza maker, said she believed Cuba would not be discussing the prospect of normal relations unless it wanted more commerce and exchanges with the United States, which would benefit the growing private sector.
She proudly noted that she had more than 20 employees at two branches of her pizza shop but was still waiting for its direct effect on her.
“It’s a dialogue, which is good to have,” she said. “But I keep waiting for the dialogue about getting more products here.”
This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.
Powered by WPeMatico