Some Cuban-Americans and U.S. business owners have been waiting years for the possible fall of Communism in Cuba and the re-opening of the island's economy. Experts say the investment opportunities are almost limitless, after decades of neglect and a U.S. embargo. Even after Fidel Castro, serious legal and political obstacles may remain in Cuba.
Less than 200 kilometers separate the island of Cuba from mainland United States, but the nations remain far apart on many issues. Political relations were severed decades ago, and travel and economic activity between the nations are strictly limited. All that could change, however, when Castro dies or hands over power, according to experts at a conference called "A Future and Free Cuba" held by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and the University of Miami's Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.
There is no indication the 79-year-old leader is going anywhere soon, but the island's future is always on the minds of Miami's large Cuban exile community
Some experts at the conference predict that Fidel's brother, Raul, will take power in Havana and gradually open the economy to foreign investment and local business, as occurred in China. Others say radical political upheaval is more likely, fed by years of discontent, especially among Cuba's youth. No matter what the political future holds, Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the Cuba institute, says the economic possibilities are enormous. "There really is no limitation. I think the first economic opportunity, once it's allowed under a Raul secession government, is going to be in the tourism industry. Then the other key area is how to build the infrastructure of Cuba, the roads, transportation system, airlines, schools and housing," he said.
The oil sector is another area of possible investment, since the recent discovery of millions of barrels of oil off Cuba's northern coast. Other businesses are interested in gaining access to the island's population of nearly 12 million as a new consumer base. Ariel Melchor of Associated Grocers of Florida says he expects major growth in food imports to the island, which has very limited supplies of beef, dairy and other products. "We all know that for the Cuban people there's nothing there available when it comes to food. The tourists, they have everything that is available. So I think it's going to be a big opportunity, especially for the people in Cuba," he said.
While the end of the Fidel Castro regime could open the door to outside investment, experts say it could also create more political and economic freedoms for Cuban people. Brian Latell, a senior research associate at the University of Miami's Cuba institute and the author of a new book called "After Fidel," says the changes may allow Cubans to open small businesses and begin making profits for themselves. "They would be taxed, they would be under heavy control. But I think as a result they would begin to feel more of an ability, an opportunity to earn money, to be in small enterprise," he said.
Some of the conference participants noted they have been studying the possibility of political transformation in Cuba for years, and not much has changed in that time. Even after 47 years in office, Fidel Castro has shown little sign of relaxing his hold on power. Miami lawyer Pedro Freyre warns that a big concern will continue to be Cuba's lack of legal protections for private business and private property. "Until you have a framework in Cuba that gives us a level, a measure of comfort, that there is some kind of legal mechanism that guarantees private property rights, then it is fool's gold (a risky investment)," he said.
Many expect a post-Castro government would begin relaxing some of its tight controls, but Freyre adds that some U.S. laws would have to be changed as well. American businesses are currently barred from operating in Cuba, and existing laws also limit the kinds of activities that firms could have under a transition or post-Castro government in Havana.
Experts agree that Cuba's government and its relations with the United States will change dramatically once Fidel Castro dies or leaves office, but when that will happen is anyone's guess.