Getting Things Done In Cuba

June 30, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — Marc Bohland knows how to get things done in Cuba, one of the few remaining bastions of hard-line Soviet-style socialism left in the world today.

Bohland, who owns the Kopper Top restaurant in northwest Grand Rapids, has built a working relationship with the government of Cuba over the last nine years, and goes there every three or four months — but not as a businessman. He goes as the leader of a local charitable organization called First-Hand Aid, which has permission from both the U.S. and Cuban governments to take medicine and supplies to two hospitals there.

Bohland's knowledge of the ins and outs inside Cuba today would be of great value to anyone in the U.S. interested in doing business there, if and when the U.S. government decides to end the economic embargo it placed on Cuba in 1962 in an attempt to topple Fidel Castro from power.

Cuba is a "huge, untapped market" for the United States, said Bohland, noting that it is only 90 miles from our shores. According to About.com, Cuba is the largest country in the Caribbean, an island about the size of Pennsylvania with a population estimated at 11.3 million in 2005. It is a very poor country, especially since the end of subsidies in 1990 from the Soviet Union, which were estimated at $4 billion to $6 billion each year.

With the "retirement" of Fidel Castro and the rise to power of his more liberal brother, Raul Castro, opportunities for trade between the two countries is increasing. In fact, the U.S. government does allow two types of American products to be sold to Cuba: food and medicine. According to a recent report from the Associated Press, Cuba purchased about $600 million worth of American agricultural products in 2007 and expects to increase that amount in 2008. Bohland said Cuba does not buy any pharmaceuticals from the U.S., however.

Some of those agricultural products are apples from other states — and maybe someday from Michigan — a crop with a value of about $100 million annually to the apple growers. Processing and resale increase the economic impact of Michigan apples to about $700 million per year, according to the Michigan Apple Committee.

"I think there's a world of opportunities" for American business in Cuba, said Don Armock of Riveridge Produce Marketing in Sparta. He went to Cuba in 2005 with a group organized by the Michigan Department of Agriculture, to attend an international trade fair held by the Cuban government. Attempts on that trip to interest the Cuban government's purchasing arm in buying Michigan might have come together, but didn’t, said Armock. He indicated that "strange politics" that still persist between the two countries are the stumbling block.

Bohland said he thinks Cuba wants to hang on to its socialism but is willing to allow limited capitalism, in the same manner that communist China has allowed American business into its country. There would be cultural shock, however, if the U.S. were suddenly allowed to market its bewildering array of consumer goods to the Cubans.

Bohland compared life in Cuba now to the style of life in America in 1961. The cars date from that era, having been repaired over and over again, with parts from Russia; the public does not have computers or access to the Internet; and only recently were some limited cell phones allowed into the people's hands. It is a slower pace of life, with a heavy emphasis on the family, said Bohland.

The average wage in Cuba amounts to about $25 a month, he said.

"Things are very expensive there. They can't afford a lot of luxuries," said Bohland.

"Luxuries" in Cuba include having a week's supply of toothpaste for your family, he added.

Food is a big issue: The government still issues ration cards to the people, he said.

First-Hand Aid, a non-denominational 501(c)3 non-profit organization, was formed by Bohland and other health care professionals in Grand Rapids in 1999. It is licensed to take medicines to Cuba by two branches of the U.S. government: the departments of Treasury and Commerce. First-Hand Aid regularly takes groups of volunteers there, each person assigned to carry on the flight a package of medications. It is carried by hand to ensure that it goes directly to the hospitals it supports.

Bohland said First-Hand Aid has received a great deal of help from Angelo Fuster, who lives in Atlanta but was born in Cuba and still has many ties there. Angelo Fuster & Associates specializes in business development and government relations in Cuba, and is also licensed by the U.S. government.

"There are hundreds of America companies doing business in Cuba, all of them in agricultural and food products," he said, mainly poultry, eggs, beans and rice. The flow of trade is only one way, however: from here to there. The U.S. government does not allow Americans to import any products from Cuba, a situation Cubans feel is unfair, according to Fuster.

And at the Cuban end, "The government is the only buyer," said Fuster.

The restrictions on what the U.S. can sell to Cuba or import from Cuba are not mandated by the Cuban government; they are mandated by the U.S. government, he noted.

The U.S. embargo on Cuba also prohibits Americans from going there just to visit. But Fuster said American officials will admit privately that they know that hundreds of thousands of Americans are going to the new resorts that have been built in Cuba. They go to Canada or Mexico and fly from there.

Cuba is "literally a vacation hotspot," said Armock. "It's so close (to America), and they've got all these resorts already built. I do business with people up in Canada who go there all the time on vacation. They think it’s a great spot."

In order for real trade to develop between Cuba and the United States, "We're going to need a few changes," said Armock. He added that it "won't take but a swipe of the pen to make all kinds of things happen."

"I think we have seen great strides in Raul Castro's regime, slowly and surely trying to open things up," said Bohland.

"I do see great hope right now on both sides," he added.

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