Businesses Buzz With Anticipation In Wake Of U.S.-Cuba Thaw
DECEMBER 26, 2014 4:26 PM ET
The U.S. economic embargo on Cuba is still solidly in place. But the
president's executive action opening relations with the island has set
off a frenzy of speculation about a new era of U.S.-Cuba commerce.
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Nothing has happened yet. The economic embargo is still solidly in
place, but the president's executive action, opening relations with
Cuba, has set of a frenzy of speculation about a new era of U.S.-Cuba
commerce. NPR's John Burnett reports about the closest American city -
Key West, Florida.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Ninety nautical miles due south lies Cuba, which
exerts a gravitational pull on this tiny Caribbean-American city,
historically, culturally and now, they hope, economically.
ROBIN SMITH-MARTIN: I'm Robin Smith-Martin. I work with Stock Island
Marina in Key West. We're the closest marina to Cuba.
BURNETT: Smith-Martin, while not Cuban, has solid Key West cred. He says
his mother helped start Jimmy buffet's "Margaritaville," and his father
was a marijuana smuggler. He expects big things if relations between Key
West and Cuba open up and eventually tourism is permitted.
SMITH-MARTIN: Demand for yachters to travel from South Florida, from
Southwest Florida and to stop off here at Stock Island to refuel,
re-provision, get repairs, before making their first trip to Havana, is
exciting for all of us here at Stock Island Marina Village.
BURNETT: Historic Key West, famed for its fishermen, revolutionaries and
bohemians is positioning itself as cultural and tourist bridge to
Havana. There's even a slogan ready to go - two nations, one vacation.
Nance Frank, an Island native who owns an art gallery in town, has
already been active pioneering cultural exchanges with Cuban artists.
NANCE FRANK: People who like history and culture love Key West and love
Havana. So I can just see those kinds of visitors coming back and forth.
BURNETT: The big players, of course, are expected to make the big deals.
Companies that sell construction equipment, tractors, home-improvement
supplies, as well as telecommunications giants and hotel chains. Rafael
Penalver, a Miami attorney whose parents fled the Castro regime in 1961,
says that the companies lining up to expand in Cuba should all be
ashamed of themselves. He's president of the San Carlos Institute, a
museum and educational center located in Key West's Old Town that was
the cradle of Cuba's independence movement from Spain.
RAFAEL PENALVER: An open Cuba for business is not a free Cuba. They're
very, very different concepts, open for a few to exploit to make money
and keep the Castros in power.
BURNETT: Yet, in the days since the president's surprise announcement on
Cuba, the talk here in Key West has been about anything but continuing
the half-century-old embargo. It's been about - when can we buy a ticket?
So if the country of Cuba finally opens up, what would it mean for the
Key West Airport?
PETER HORTON: Keep in mind that it is not open at this time. But if it
does, it means that we could resume regularly scheduled commercial
flights from Key West to Cuba. The last one we had, I believe, was 1960.
BURNETT: Airport manager Peter Horton said the first commercial charter
flight left Key West international Airport and flew the 114 miles to
Jose Marti International Airport only last year. Like the marina is for
boats, this airport would be the closest U.S. landing strip to Cuba for
general aviation. Through the years, Horton says, they've remodeled
their customs facility in expectation for the elusive news.
HORTON: I have been here at this airport since 1988, and I can hardly
count on one hand the times when somebody, in an official capacity, has
said - get ready, Cuba is going to open.
BURNETT: Maybe, just maybe, that day is closer than ever. John Burnett,
NPR News, Miami.
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