Is Cuba Now Open for Business?

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016
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It’s well known that looking at the architecture in Havana, Cuba, is like traveling back in time: the weathered buildings are a major part of the city’s attraction.

However, with the recent opening of a US Embassy and President Barack Obama’s current visit to Cuba heralding a new era for relations with the US and the wider world the country is on the verge of a new wave of investment from architects and construction firms.

Only 90 miles from Florida, with unspoiled beaches and the still-unpolished jewel of Havana, the island beckons to US real estate developers and architects. However, there is still one large obstacle to trade prosperity between Cuba and the US. The US Trade embargo, which prohibits Americans from spending money or doing business on the island, still stands despite calls for its removal.

The US embargo against Cuba has existed in some form since 1960. The law says the embargo stays in place until Cuba holds free and fair elections, releases political prisoners and guarantees free speech and workers’ rights. Only Congress can lift the embargo.

The embargo was initially designed to punish Fidel Castro for seizing US properties in Cuba, embracing the Soviet Union and trying to subvert many of his Latin American neighbours. Over time, however, the embargo has been the biggest source of diplomatic and political tension between the two countries.

Despite the US embargo, trade with the rest of the west is set to increase,. Indeed, foreign investment in Cuba is nothing new; it began in the 1970s and gained steam in the 1990s. Spanish, French, and Canadian companies have long been building beach resorts and glitzy hotels in Havana through joint ventures with the Cuban government. Much of the island’s waterfront access has already been sewn up, particularly on the northern shore. The beach town of Varadero has numerous hotels operated by Spain’s Iberostar and Melia chains, and Canada’s Royalton brand runs resorts in both Varadero and Cayo Santa María.

Chinese and British developers are also building luxury golf resorts, with up to 12 planned as Cuba’s GDP growth is forecast at five per cent. At the same time, Mexico and other countries are investing in a new development zone. Vietnam has also confirmed a deal to build a hotel, following the path of Canadian and Spanish hoteliers and the UK-based developer London & Regional is investing $500 million in a Cuban resort. This all comes at a time when tourist numbers on the island are steadily increasing.

US executives have been pouring into Havana since last December, when Obama initially signalled the historic rapprochement. There is a great deal of interest in doing business in Cuba, but for the US the trade embargo will continue to be an impediment.

European, Asian and Latin American investors are eyeing the Caribbean island and trying to get deals ahead of their US rivals and there is even a danger that the US could get left behind. Few experts expect Congress to lift the embargo soon, so, for now, US businesses are targeting areas that are not covered by the embargo. One thing looks certain though, the investment is on its way, whether it is from the US or nations further afield and architects look set to play a critical role.

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