Cuba seeks foreign investment, thumbing nose at US sanctions

Picture shows Havana's skyline at dusk

By Nelson Acosta

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba hosted a business fair with over 800 companies from more than 60 countries on Monday as it lobbied for new investments, thumbing its nose at U.S. sanctions that have long spooked foreign companies from engaging with the communist-run island.

Cuba blames the Cold War-era U.S. trade embargo and the COVID pandemic for crippling tourism and domestic industry, wiping out the cash it needs to import basic goods and making foreign investment ever more important.

"Today we work minimize the negative impact of the economic, financial and commercial blockade," said Cuba foreign trade minister Ricardo Cabrisas at the forum's opening event.

The U.S. has long said its trade embargo is aimed at promoting "human rights and fundamental liberties in Cuba," a policy which has barely budged in decades.

Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel told attendees "massive" participation at the fair this year was proof of business confidence in Cuba.

"This is the largest fair with the most participation, in terms of businessmen and countries, that we have had in the last five years," said Diaz-Canel. "It means that there is support from the international business community."

The trade fair includes promotional stands from countries ranging from Spain to Russia, Iran and China. Increasingly, it also includes small privately-held Cuban businesses that re-emerged just two years ago after being effectively banned for decades.

Jay Brickman, a vice president at the Crowley shipping and logistics company, said emphasis on private business marked a major shift.

"This year has been very different due to changes in the Cuban government's policy, depending much more on medium and small businesses and a little less on state entities," he told Reuters in an interview.

But financing for such businesses is still largely hobbled by Washington's sanctions. Foreign companies also complain that local regulations, bureaucracy and problems with the peso currency and payments also bog down business in Cuba.

In September, the Biden administration hinted it would unveil new regulatory measures in support of Cuba`s fledgling private business, but those rules have yet to materialize.

A few foreign entrepreneurs, such as Cuban-born Miami businessman Hugo Cancio walk a fine line with authorizations from both the U.S. and Cuba.

Cancio told reporters he will be launching a new food industry brand in Cuba this week, DeCancio Foods, proof of what is possible during a time of "economic opening."

"It's more real than many think," he said.

(Reporting by Nelson Acosta; editing by Dave Sherwood and Bill Berkrot)