For just a moment, picture a place that’s been frozen in time: the streets are lined with Eisenhower-era automobiles, virtually none of the small businesses downtown have a computer and cell phones are as rare as diamonds.
While you might believe that such a place could only exist on a Hollywood movie set, in reality the description could just as easily apply to modern day Havana, Cuba’s largest city. In the more than 50 years since the United States imposed a trade embargo against Fidel Castro’s Cuba, the world has changed—and changed again—but like an episode out of the Twilight Zone, most of Cuba has remained almost exactly as it was when President Kennedy sat in the Oval Office.
So when President Obama recently announced plans to normalize relations with Cuba, many businesses across America took notice. For regardless of what your view is of that decision—and there are strong arguments both for and against the decision—the undeniable fact is that from a business perspective, lifting the American trade embargo presents enormous opportunities for the world’s largest exporter located only 90 miles north of Havana.
After more than five decades of trade embargo, Cuba presents U.S. businesses with an untapped market for a wide range of exports. In fact, the Great Recession of ’08 actually diminished the already limited amount of trade between Cuba and the U.S.; through October of this year, there was $260 million in trade between the two countries, a far cry from the $601 million through the same period in 2008. And when considering those numbers, it’s important to also remember that the US does not currently allow any goods to be imported from Cuba, including cigars.
While there are many American industries that could stand to benefit from removal of the US embargo on Cuba, one of the largest beneficiaries may well be the auto industry.
In the US, the average age of autos on the road is estimated to be about 11 years old; by stark contrast, due to Castro’s strict rules against purchasing new cars as well as the US trade embargo, most cars in Cuba are well over 50 years old, many as old as 60.
Of course, even when the US embargo ends, there will still be other obstacles for US businesses hoping to develop a Cuban customer base.
One of the biggest roadblocks for potential US exports to Cuba remains the exceptionally low wages paid to most Cuban workers. For example, it’s estimated that the average Cuban government employee—and a huge portion of the population falls into that category—is paid as little as $20 or $30 US dollars per month.
And while government-sponsored ‘free’ healthcare and other services might ease some of that financial burden, unless Cuban wages were to rise, the market potential for US businesses could remain limited.
It is, of course, impossible for anyone to predict with certainty the future of US/Cuban trade relations. However, with the lifting of the decades-old trade embargo, US exporters would be wise to keep their eyes—and businesses—open to the prospect of tapping into an untapped market of millions, just south of the Florida Keys.