Houston's Cuba trade mission built up business relationshipsCindy • Sep 29, 2016
Houston's civic and business leaders see much to gain in trade relations with Cuba following Mayor Sylvester Turner's trade mission this past weekend, particularly commissioners of the Port of Houston.
"Regular service to Cuba would be one more jewel in the port's crown," Port Commissioner Dean Corgey said.
He noted that the island has a deep-water port of 50 feet that could easily accommodate large ships, and the Port of Houston could serve as the go-between for Cuba when it comes to ships traveling from Asia through the Panama Canal. The communist-ruled island is also developing smaller feeder vessels through which trade with the Port of Houston can become more accessible.
Members of the mayor's delegation to Cuba overall said they succeeded in establishing, and in some cases strengthening, business ties to the island despite the obstacle of the U.S. trade embargo.
"We know there are a lot of things happening between the White House and Cuban leadership, and that will take care of itself," Turner said in a statement. "This trip was all about beginning the dialogue that will lead to bigger things down the road."
Port commissioners noted that as a result of the trade mission, a delegation from Cuba formalized plans to visit the port within the next 45 days.
Seeing a need for importing consumer goods on a regular basis, Corgey anticipates major exports to Cuba including agricultural products, rice and milk in particular, as well as building materials such as steel, cement and industrial products - given the state of decay in several of the island's buildings.
Port Commissioner Theldon Branch sees ports in Cuba, particularly Port Mariel, as a piece in the Port of Houston's long-term growth plan as well as Cuba's employment outlook.
Jonathan Newton, managing partner at the Houston office of Baker & McKenzie, noted that presently the tourism industry in Cuba stands to benefit the most from improving business relations since the trade embargo greatly limits U.S. investments, and Cubans will have a hard time traveling to the U.S. for tourism since they make an average of only $20 a month.
He added that while Cuban government officials voiced concerns and complaints over the U.S. embargo, they failed to address other concerns specific to Cuba such as human rights violations and the lack of a fully functioning legal framework that could support U.S. investments.
Regardless, Newton said he sees opportunities for long-term partnerships down the line. He added that big-name brands are likely to have an advantage over small businesses as Cuban officials are more likely to recognize them.
Newton added that as far as the energy sector is concerned, Cuba is still in its exploration phase for oil and gas, making it too early for any concrete negotiations. However, Felix Chevalier, a Houston attorney representing clients with Cuban interests, noted that Cuba is particularly interested in U.S. investments in the energy sector.
Another one of the immediate results of the Houston trade mission was an invitation from Dr. Robert Robbins, president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center, for directors of Cuba's Center for Cardiovascular Care to attend the Society of Thoracic Surgeons meeting in Houston in January.
The public health sector is where Cuba is demonstrating signs of more advanced development, Robbins said, with every province having its own hospital and medical school, and physicians living and working in neighborhoods.
"From a public health standpoint, you've got to be inspired by what they do," Robbins said.
There are talks of possible exchange programs for the center's trainees similar to what the Texas Medical Center offers for other countries, Robbins said.
Ending the embargo?
Members of the delegation are optimistic that the embargo will be lifted. Laura Murillo, CEO of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said that once her team completes a debriefing of the trip, they will be reaching out to members of Congress in support of ending the embargo.
For Chevalier, whose participation in the trade mission is just one of the various trips he has made to the island, lifting the embargo would offer a business and personal benefit. He has relatives still living on the island.
"I know that business trade and tourism with Cuba will help the Cuban people, which is why I'm so committed to this endeavor," Chevalier said in a statement. Read Full Story Here