Matt Coleman and Rotarian Don Broyles
February 21, 2012
"You can't just go to Cuba because you want to go on a tourist trip," says Charleston entrepreneur Matt Coleman. "You have to have a reason."
This largest Caribbean island, 100 miles from Key West, Florida, and some 200 miles from Miami, has few tourists from the United States. A blockade against Cuba has been in place since 1960 when its government "nationalized" American properties in the country.
"There are no electronic transactions," Coleman told Putnam Rotarians today. "No credit card use. Cell phones don't work. You can't get e-mail through the hotel's internet service."
Coleman recently joined seventeen fellow members of the Young Presidents Organization for a three-day visit to Havana, Cuba's largest city and its capital.
"Our reason for going would have to be educational, artistic. In our case, it was 'medical.'
"We took over-the-counter medications to Cuba, and we took a couple of hundred pounds worth.
"We had them shipped to Miami and then we had a bag that we put in each piece of luggage. You could take seven pounds each -- or eight -- however it worked out.
"Cuba has a great need for meds that they just can't get. They might produce pharmaceuticals for export, but they don't usually have access to Tums.
"Why did I go? It seemed like a chance to go and see what was there and what this embargo is about.
"Cuba is inching toward free enterprise," Coleman said. "Small private enterprises are starting to grow.
"And the people we met, the people on the street -- very, very pleasant.
"The governments may not know how to communicate, but the people do.
"English starts in the third grade there as a primary language. They have Spanish and English throughout the educational process.
They spend a lot of time and effort on education," he said. "They export physicians. They export athletes. They export pharmaceuticals."
In a roundabout way, according to Coleman, Cuba does billions of dollars worth of business with the United States.
"We sell them food products -- grains and wheat." But it has to be hard currency, cash up front.
"You've got to come get it with somebody else's boat because a Cuban boat can't come to the United States anymore than a US shipping flag vessel can deliver to Cuba. It's a weird relationship.
"They control the exchange rate. You give them a hundred US dollars, they give you back $87. There is a 13 percent charge. And if you want your money back when you leave, it's three percent more.
"Everyone you talk to who has been [to Cuba] has gone through Canada or Mexico or from European countries. We took a direct flight from Miami on a 737.
"We went with a planeload of Cuban-Americans who have much more freedom now to go back and forth, and to transfer funds.
"They need the embargo lifted," said Coleman, "because, in my opinion, they're missing out on tons of opportunities.
"If the embargo were lifted tomorrow, they couldn't handle the amount of tourist dollars that would flow from the United States.
"Things are steadily changing, but very slowly. They have so much opportunity."