Economic Development

Cuban Diplomats Visit Valley to Discuss Trade

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Two Cuban diplomats are visiting the Mahoning Valley this week to discuss potential trade opportunities as Cuba and the United States begin the process to normalize relations between the countries.

Juan Lamigueiro Leon, deputy chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., and Sergio Vazquez del Rio, first secretary of the section, arrived here Wednesday evening to meet with area business leaders and visit area companies. Their trip is hosted by the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber and Youngstown State University.

“I feel I am a lucky man. I’m here at a historic moment in the relationship between the two countries,” Leon said during a luncheon Thursday at YSU.

The United States has imposed a trade embargo against Cuba for more than 50 years, and Cuba remains on a list of nations that support terrorism. Absent formal diplomatic relations between the two countries, the United States and Cuba, through an exchange of diplomatic notes, established “interest sections” in each other’s countries under the legal protection of the Swiss embassies in Washington and Havana.

In December, President Obama announced plans to normalize relations with Cuba and loosened some financial and travel restrictions. Since then, “a lot of U.S. companies have contacted us” about visiting Cuba and exploring the market there, Leon reported.

“We’re in the process of knowing each other better and we will discover the potential of both countries for economic relations,” he said.

Work on the visit began about a year ago, said Tom Humphries, president of the Regional Chamber. “We had an opportunity to sit down with a few of our colleagues that are of Cuban descent in Ohio and talk about trade in Cuba and opportunities that might avail themselves to us in the near future,” he said. “Six or seven months ago, we started talking to the university about this opportunity as well because we saw it as a dual opportunity.”

The visit falls in line with the OH-PA Stateline Export Initiative, said Sarah Boyarko, regional vice president of economic development, North America, for the chamber. The chamber and YSU launched the effort earlier this year, uniting export initiatives in 10 northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania counties.

Luis Alcalde, an attorney with Kegler Brown Hill and Ritter, which has offices in Columbus and Cleveland, was among the individuals involved in the planning effort to bring the Cuban diplomats here. He heads his firm’s Latin American practice.

Cuba is the largest island nation in the Caribbean, geographically the size of Pennsylvania with a population of 11.2 million. The country has “high development” in human capital but low development in infrastructure, with needs to be filled in communications and transportation, Alcalde said.

“Cuba is in a state of economic revolution where it is evolving from an economy that was completely state run to one that is now developing a private sector,” he continued.

The island nation is 120 miles from Miami, he added, a day and a half’s sail from major U.S. ports. Avocados and mangos can be picked and fish caught “and be in the top restaurants in New York in five hours,” Alcalde said.

Many of Ohio’s major export sectors, aside from agriculture, involve “big ticket items like machinery, communications, biotechnology that Cubans are going to be interested in trading with us,” he added.

“That’s the beauty of it,” he said. “The Cuban market is open. It’s not saturated by anybody. We in Ohio can compete with anybody because we’re all starting from the same spot.”

Alcalde predicted the trade embargo would be lifted in a couple of years.

Humphries sees multiple opportunities for companies in the region, including in agriculture. Next week the chamber will announce it has established a “strong relationship” with the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation to help farmers grow their business, he reported. Other opportunities include technology, construction and energy.

“One of the things we’ve been pushing is to be able to get the gas to the lake and to the river,” Humphries said. Cuba, which has no natural energy resources, has to import its energy and a U.S. supplier would potentially offer a more attractive and closer source that Cuba’s current energy supplier, Russia.

Normalization of relations between the two countries and the end of the trade embargo makes sense, Vazquez del Rio said.

“There is a lot of opportunity for both countries not only in trade and commerce but in scientific fields, in protection of the environment,” he said. “It is a good moment to start to think about that.”

Following the luncheon, the diplomats and Alcalde participated in a tour of Vinylume Products Inc., which manufactures windows and window extrusions. A tour of Summer Garden Food Manufacturing in Boardman is planned for today.

“Every single thing we make is made to order,” Orlando White, Vinylume president, told the diplomats.

That would be good in Cuba, where houses date to the 17th century and would require customized windows, Alcalde said.

“This kind of window would be ideal for construction in Havana,” Leon said. He sees their use in construction of new hotels and other buildings. “To use this kind of window would be a possibility for us,” he said.

Pictured: Sergio Vazquez del Rio, Tom Humphries, Juan Lamigueiro Leon, Martin Abraham, Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.