Sunday, February 28, 2016

Americans need to understand Cuba to do business there

Op-ed: Americans need to understand Cuba to do business there
By Sue Ashdown
First Published Feb 27 2016 03:12PM

With family ties in Cuba, I began traveling there not only before it was
fashionable, but when doing so was considered somewhat aberrant. I
helped Cubans peg me by explaining that Utah was sort of close to
California. Explaining my Cuban connection to Utahns was harder.
Ironically, both Utah and Cuba are considered red states, but not
exactly for the same reasons.

What always struck me about Utah and Cuba were not the differences, but
the similarities. As a Utahn, I had nothing to do with Miami's shrill
anti-Cuban rhetoric, so I always saw Cuba on a more personal level.
Having been raised a Mormon, I found that the best parts of my culture —
neighborly solidarity, collective effort — were prized in Cuba.

In recent years, as my visits to Cuba became more frequent and longer,
it seemed evident that the sound and fury of my country's bitter
antagonism toward Cuba had reached exhaustion. Looking at the situation
from a business perspective, the half-century of ceding the Cuban
marketplace to foreign competitors was no longer tenable for U.S. companies.

Together with a Cuban partner who'd performed professional market
studies for those foreign competitors, we opened a firm to provide
real-time, onsite Cuban market information for fact-starved American
businesses. The timing couldn't have been better. Several months later,
Presidents Obama and Castro announced their intentions to re-establish
diplomatic relations.

Over the past year, as we've met with U.S. business executives visiting
Cuba, my partner and I have been struck by the number of myths and
prejudices we hear repeatedly. Partly it's the result of more than 50
years of misinformation about a forbidden island. It's impossible to
help businesses get their bearings until the myths are swept away and
Cuba is approached realistically.

One of the most common misconceptions is the idea that Cuba is a banana
republic where who you know is more important than what you know, and a
little cash on the side never hurts.

Perhaps unwittingly, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker reinforced the
notion at the recent U.S./Cuba Regulatory Dialogue in Washington, where
she complained about "problems reaching people in [Cuba] to discuss
business opportunities, and difficulties identifying the relevant Cuban
laws and regulations." But Cubans have a process for this, which the
Spanish, French, Germans, Japanese, Russians, Brazilians and Chinese
clearly manage to maneuver. Where is the American hang-up?

The business approval process in Cuba is a collective one, not decided
in discussions with one or even a handful of influential people. It
involves a great deal of painstaking — some would say exhausting —
steps, in a certain order. High-level contacts, or bribes, are simply
not effective business tools. As for Cuban regulations, they're not
unintelligible, but U.S. companies will have to break their Miami
dependence in order to interpret them correctly. They need to conquer
their fear of dealing directly with Cuban entities and advisers who
actually have their feet on the ground in Cuba, regardless of their
national origins.

At a dinner in Havana recently, a Cuban woman seated across from me
leaned forward to ask how our work was going. Challenging, I answered.
"The Americans have a problem," she said, getting straight to the point.
"They're arrogant. And Cubans are very proud. They can't stand being
told what to do. The minute they sense things going that direction is
the moment it all goes wrong. It's a difficult combination. But not an
impossible one."

I know the problem. American executives, solidly convinced of the virtue
of the system that has worked so well for them, are often so mystified
by the Cuban way of doing things, and so carried away by first
impressions — Havana's dilapidated skyline, rickety antique Chevrolets —
that they can come off like missionaries to a benighted people.

Sometimes when we mention that there is something to be said for a
system that has allowed for Cubans to survive 55 years of crushing
economic sanctions, the response, with those first stark impressions in
mind is, "Well, but at what price?" The answer goes to the very heart of
Cuban identity. Exactly like the early Mormons who relocated to the
periphery of the United States, Cubans see their sovereignty as priceless.

The businesses we've seen that will prosper in Cuba are the ones that
fully grasp this concept and look for ways to work together rather than
focusing on differences and insisting that Cubans change to suit them.

Sue Ashdown is a sixth-generation Utahn and the president of the
Utah-based IcarusCuba LLC, in partnership with David Urra. Previously,
she directed the Washington, D.C., based American ISP Association and
was a partial owner of XMission in Salt Lake City. She divides her time
between Utah and Havana.

Source: Op-ed: Americans need to understand Cuba to do business there |
The Salt Lake Tribune -

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