In addition to Chávez’s health, at stake was how Cuba would fare without the helping hand of Fidel Castro’s political heir. For a decade, Caracas supplied Havana with about 100,000 barrels of oil daily at cut-rate prices, covering half the island’s energy needs. Were that lifeline to die with the Venezuelan president, Cuba would take a substantial hit – just as it did when it lost its previous protector, the Soviet Union, in 1991.
It was then, during the stress of the periodo especial, that Ian Delaney brought a dose of Canadian capitalism to Cuba. The deals struck by the Bay Street executive – known as the “Smiling Barracuda” – resulted in a joint venture between his firm, Sherritt International, and the state to mine nickel and cobalt in the eastern province of Holguín for export worldwide. Sherritt was later granted concessions in other sectors including oil and gas, which it sells domestically. The Toronto-based company is one of Cuba’s largest private investors and represents a substantial chunk of Canada’s business dealings with the island (trade between the two countries runs at about $1 billion Canadian annually).
It was also during the ’90s that Cuba opened its beaches to herds of foreign tourists, striking deals with international hotel chains like Spain’s Sol Meliá. Cuba now welcomes nearly three million tourists each year – more than a third of them Canadian – and there are dozens of new resorts planned, with the government expecting to add 20,000 hotel rooms by 2020, for a total of 85,000.
Having learned how perilous it is to rely on a single trading partner, Cuba also sought investment from other friendly governments. In return for sugar and nickel purchases, Beijing sells Havana goods such as the buses now cruising the island’s roadways. And Chinese Geely sedans are slowly replacing Russian Ladas as police cars and in other state fleets.
Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, meanwhile, is the main player in a $900-million revamp of the seaport at Mariel, west of the capital, that will include a petroleum terminal and a free-trade zone for biotech and light industry. The firm has been given access to Cuba’s sugar industry, and Brazil’s development bank is also backing a $175-million overhaul of the island’s airports.
For Canadian business, Cuba “intrinsically has a lot of potential,” Biniowsky says. “It’s the biggest island in the Caribbean [with 11.2 million people]. It’s got significant agricultural tracts. It’s got a highly educated population that could plug into the high-value-added global economy.”
To that list of assets, the 44-year-old Canadian lawyer adds the natural-resource wealth that Sherritt and others are extracting; Cuba’s reasonable success in combatting corruption (by Latin American standards, it fares very well in Transparency International rankings); and the fact that, unlike other countries in the region, it’s largely free of violent crime.
Canada is not above leveraging the fact that it is, well, not the United States. During a November trade-show speech in Havana, the CEO of the Canadian Commercial Corp. (a Crown agency that promotes trade) highlighted some commonality in adversarial relations by harkening back to the War of 1812. “They invaded us,” Marc Whittingham joked, “and we got so mad we actually went and burned the White House down.”
Today, the American embargo is effectively a twofold opportunity for Canadian firms – it significantly clears the field so long as it’s in force, and it makes Cuba far more profitable should it be lifted. Guessing at when that might happen is a mug’s game. Diplomats in Havana and Washington report a dramatically improved tone in their dealings of late. But incidents like the July seizure of a North Korean ship bearing Cuban arms concealed in sugary cargo can easily reverse steps toward rapprochement.
One of the firms banking on Cuba’s future is Montreal-based 360 Vox Corp. The resort-development specialist has plans for three major projects on the island. “They work in this environment, but if we do get the travel embargo lifted, then it’s a huge bonus,” says Guy Chartier, CEO of the firm’s Cuba division.
While firms from Europe, Latin America and Asia are also active here, the present moment, Chartier adds, “is really a window of opportunity for companies such as ours to bring unique expertise to a market where we’re not yet competing directly against our friendly U.S. neighbour.”