Ryan, O’Brien Report on Trade Mission to Cuba

WARREN, Ohio – Russell H. Sewell sees several business opportunities in Cuba for his company, Quality Switch Inc., if trade restrictions between the United States and the island nation are lifted.

The CEO of the Newton Falls company, which manufactures and designs electrical switches for the transformer industry, was among the local business owners and executives who traveled to Cuba last week as part of and 18-member trade and research mission.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-13 Ohio, and state Rep. Sean O’Brien, D-63 Bazetta, led the mission. Sewell joined Ryan, O’Brien and Dr. Milton Sanchez-Parodi of Vista Trade Group, who helped organize the trip, at a news conference Friday.

“For the longest time our area has been last in the game in so many different ways” and for the past 14 or more years the community has worked to position it to be “cutting edge,” Ryan said. “This is another example of our community stepping up.”

O’Brien said the mission’s purpose was twofold: to explore business opportunities and to learn more about Cuba and its culture.

The trip was “very fruitful trip” for the business representatives on the delegation and the state and federal representatives, who wanted to understand the Cuban culture and government, Ryan affirmed. “We don’t know a lot about Cuba and I thought it was important for us to gain a deeper understanding,” he said.

Among the aspects of Cuban culture that Ryan said impressed he and O’Brien was the emphasis on arts, music and dance in schools, as opposed to in U.S. schools where it is “kind of on the periphery,” he observed.

“I left there more and more convinced that art, music and dance are really essential to a really well-rounded educational process and educating the whole child,” Ryan said.

It is also important for government at the state and federal levels to engage Cuba’s “legislative leaders” to show them the benefits of opening their country to investment and relations with the United States, the congressman said.

More than 30% of Quality Switch’s business is exports, Sewell reported, and there is “great potential” for trade in Cuba. Cuban business leaders he met with “seem very excited” about his company’s products.

“The potential is there and we want to explore that” but that potential is “going to take some time to develop,” Sewell acknowledged.

President Obama announced plans last year to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations and both nations have reestablished embassies. A trade embargo remains in place restricting what U.S. businesses can sell to Cuba.

Infrastructure represents one of the opportunities for U.S. companies, Sewell said. Cuba’s outmode electrical grid is based on the Chicago’s system in the 1930s. “They don’t manufacture a lot. Their natural resources are limited to what they have so naturally they’re looking outside,” he observed.

Cuba wants “to do things like build a wind farm from the Bay of Pigs to the middle of the country,” Ryan said. “That’s a lot of steel, that’s a lot of bolts, that’s a lot of rebar, that’s a lot of concrete that they probably don’t have the capacity to do.”.

“They need to build infrastructure,” Sanchez-Parodi agreed. “Trucks and buses are important. We cannot export [those] to them because of the embargo.”

Sanchez-Parodi pointed to opportunities for restaurant operator Covelli Enterprises, whose owner operator, Sam Covelli, was on the mission, and for locally manufactured LED light bulbs, which are of higher quality and last longer than the bulbs used in Cuba.

Tourism, which Cubans “want to upgrade,” is another potential opportunity for local businesses, Sewell said. “[Avalon Holdings CEO] Ron Klingle looked at building a golf course and resort,” he said.

“They’re very friendly and they just want a chance to improve their lifestyle,” he said. “It’s not that they’re unhappy, per se. They just see the potential there that they could have more.”

Each of the 13 companies represented on the delegation “has something to offer Cuba once the embargo is lifted,” Sanchez-Parodi said.

One of the frustrating aspects of the embargo is how it’s affecting U.S. companies, O’Brien complained. Brazilians have invested $1 billion into its port, and the Chinese and Russians are making loans.

“So you see activity but it’s not U.S. companies that are doing it and Cuba is 90 miles off our shore,” he said. “The Cubans we met .. expressed that they really wanted to do business with the U.S..”

Cuba has “a very advanced biotech industry” that “can benefit our country tremendously,” Sanchez-Parodi, a Poland physician originally from Cuba, said. Among Cuba’s products is a treatment for diabetic foot ulcers that can reduce the need for limb amputation from the disease.

“Right now it is difficult to bring that into our country because of the embargo,’ he said.

Sanchez-Parodi was “absolutely phenomenal,” Ryan said. The physician, who has been at St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital since 1989, “has lots of connections” in Cuba and “made it so easy” for the business people on the delegation to connect with the business community and for he and O’Brien to have “quality meetings with high-level officials,” he remarked.

Ryan called on the business community to put pressure on Republican congressional leaders if they want the embargo lifted. “Until that lobbying effort becomes more intensive, I think it’ll be hard,” he said.

Prospects for getting Congress to lift the embargo might be better under new House Speaker Paul Ryan. No relation to Tim Ryan, Paul Ryan, who represents a district in Wisconsin, was elected speaker Thursday to replace Ohio’s John Boehner.

“He may be a little more sympathetic than Boehner,” Ryan said. “This is very much a domestic political issue in a lot of ways, especially with regard to the politics in Florida where you have a split even within the Cuban community.”

Pictured: Dr. Milton Sanchez-Parodi of the Vista Trade Group, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, state Rep. Sean O’Brien and Russell H. Sewell, CEO of Quality Switch Inc.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.