July 31, 2001.
Havana - Packing your briefcase for a business trip to
Cuba? Two items not to forget: cloak and dagger.
The economy of Fidel Castro's communist-run island -
although still under firm state control - is hungry for
foreign investment and opportunities abound. But when it comes
to getting down to business, put down your MBA reading and
pick up an old John LeCarre novel.
Secrecy and mistrust does not only come from government
officials encouraged for years to publicly despise profits and
other capitalist tenets.
The foreign business community, caught between the
notorious sensitivity of Castro's officials and the fear of US
reprisals for breaching the 42-year-old US trade embargo
against Cuba, is generally tightlipped and at times seems
almost pathologically anxious to keep a low profile.
John S Kavulich, head of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic
Council, a non-profit group that studies the island's economy,
said many foreign companies trading with or investing in Cuba
"want to stay under the proverbial radar screen".
Public comments found irritating by the Cuban government
can translate into payment delays, and can also hold companies
up to scrutiny by US regulators monitoring sanctions, Kavulich
"I'm sorry, we are not authorised to give out names of
Canadian companies working here," said a duty officer at the
Canadian embassy's commercial section.
"Impossible," responded Alain Marinetti, commercial
director for French construction giant Bouyges, when asked to
talk about its current projects in Havana, which are said to
include at least two hotels.
"I'm afraid we have nobody there who is authorised to speak
to you," said Isabel Moreno at the press office of Spanish
bank Caja Madrid, which has a majority share in a joint
venture with Corporacion Financiera Habana and reportedly
plans to install automatic teller machines around the Cuban
Add to that the old saw used by state employees all over
the former socialist bloc - "We pretend to work and they
pretend to pay us" - and the recipe for 9-to-5 frustration is
During a recent two-week quest for interviews, a few
interesting variations on the usual "Sorry, he's in a meeting"
excuse were heard.
"Oh, she just got a call from the police. Her house has
been burgled and she had to step out to file a report."
"Sorry, but the secretary was suddenly taken sick after
your call and forgot to transfer your appointment into the
A number of others made appointments but simply failed to
show up or suddenly were substituted by lower-ranking
representatives with no clearance to give any meaningful
Once you get around to hammering out a deal with Cuban
officials, expect a long, rough ride from well-prepared
The latest edition of Cuba: a guideline for Canadian
business, prepared by Canada's embassy here, says Cuban
negotiators are "exceptionally well-prepared", but sometimes
focus on "short-run financial gains that can ease the
country's immediate shortages of hard currency and
"Negotiations with Cuban government entities are
characterised by a deep distrust of capitalist motives," the
report said, adding that getting approval for a joint venture
can take up to three years.
The report also said the Cuban negotiating tactics often
don't "follow what foreign executives would consider 'good
"In the manner of a used-car salesperson who claims his
boss won't approve the deal he has just signed with a
customer, Cuban negotiators frequently discover previously
undisclosed constraints," it said.
Asked about the report, several foreign businessmen said
they thought it was too harsh.
"I think this country is a very straight country," said
Stephen Marshall, a British businessperson who runs four joint
"Getting a deal done requires a very deep understanding of
the idiosyncrasies of Cuba, but that's also true of other
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