Since President Obama moved to normalize relations with Cuba in December, you might think the nation has put out a big “Open for Business” sign. Trade delegations seem to land in Havana every day. But traveling there for business is not as easy as it might appear, despite significant changes.
“The president has made travel to Cuba for commercial purposes easier,” said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a business organization in New York that focuses on Cuba without taking political positions. “But he hasn’t said, ‘Do what you want, and there will be no monitoring.’ What he has done is encourage you to do more in Cuba but to remember that there remain regulations that need to be followed.”
Mr. Kavulich said there are two ways to travel to Cuba for Americans interested in exploring business possibilities on their own (that is, outside of an official delegation, like the one led by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York last month).
The first covers businesses that are already exempt from the longstanding United States embargo. These include sales of food, medicine and, as of this year, credit card services, building supplies and air travel.
Executives in such fields should obtain a business visa from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. Mr. Kavulich said companies already exporting to Cuba usually contact their Cuban counterparts to lobby the Interests Section for the visa.
The second way to check out business opportunities is simply to fly down on a tourist visa. But do not expect to get into any government ministry without a business visa.
The United States government requires all travelers to Cuba to fill out a form specifying that the trip is being conducted under one of 12 permitted categories (the list is available at http://1.usa.gov/1sCOBaX). Searching for unauthorized business opportunities is not one of them, so some creativity might be required. Charter airlines will require this form before issuing tickets, and the United States government holds the forms for five years.
Of course, another alternative is to fly to another country, typically Canada or Jamaica, and head to Cuba from there on a commercial flight.
Some tips for doing business in Cuba:
■ Authorized travel agencies have the contacts to make hotel reservations and other arrangements. They charge for this, but it’s considered worth it.
■ Although American credit card companies are now allowed to process transactions made in Cuba, none have yet started to do so. Bring cash. Plenty of it (Although you will have to declare $10,000 or more to United States Customs).
■ Besides offering an exchange rate for American dollars that is lopsided in its favor, Cuba charges a 10 percent penalty for buying them. Consider changing to Canadian dollars or euros first, then buy Cuban convertible pesos at the airport or hotel.
■ Most American cellphones will not work in Cuba. You can rent a cellphone from the Cuban phone company, Etecsa, at some hotels.
■ Rental cars are available, but are expensive. Better to hire a taxi. Consider negotiating a deal with the driver to wait for you and return you to your hotel.
■ It is now legal to bring back Cuban cigars and Cuban rum, but you can’t spend more than $100. Get a receipt for whatever you buy, and don’t try to convince United States Customs that a guy on the street sold you a $400 box of Cohibas for $100. Your cigars could end up in the airport trash.