The long game in Cuba

I recently had the privilege of joining Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and other leaders on a trip to Cuba organized by Ambassador Charles Shapiro of the World Affairs Council. It was my first visit. Our goal was to gain firsthand knowledge of the business environment and initiate the personal connections a city needs to build long-term relationships in a global economy.

Our visit took place against a promising backdrop. In December 2014, President Barack Obama announced the United States would launch discussions to restore full diplomatic ties with Cuba. During our stay, the White House announced the two countries will restore diplomatic relations Monday, July 20.

These announcements have catalyzed American business interest in Cuba. Those on the trip agreed we were laying the groundwork for the long game. I returned stateside with some indelible impressions, convinced Atlanta has a great window of opportunity to become what Reed has termed a “business gateway” to this nation of more than 11 million people.

What sectors of our economy could be early standouts as we create this business gateway? Many Georgians agree we have a deep bench in, among other things, telecommunications; transportation and logistics, and consumer goods and building supplies.

The initial impressions of a first-time visitor to Cuba often focus on the scarcity of mobile network coverage and Internet access. That may change soon. For years, prospective investors have been daunted by the country’s lack of ethernet connections. On our trip, we heard a lot about a Cuba of the future that could leapfrog a generation of technology and rely more heavily on wireless options.

Atlanta has a wealth of expertise in this area, from Midtown’s AT&T Foundry Innovation Center to the technologies developed by some of our iconic Fortune 100 companies.

At least 10 international airports make it easy for visitors to access Cuba’s beaches and historic cities, but Atlanta currently lacks a direct air connection to the island. I am sure it is just a matter of time before our hometown airline, Delta, offers nonstop flights from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

For tourists, students, artists and business people, that direct connection will open up worlds of possibility. Moreover, air travel is not the only mode of transport likely to expand. Cuba’s port of Mariel is in a $1 billion deepening project that will place it prominently atop the maritime trade economy that connects Asia and Europe. It will be interesting to see what transpires between Mariel and Georgia’s Port of Savannah as both expand capacity.

Many people predict the restoration of diplomatic relations will bring to Cuba consumer goods and building supplies that have been scarce since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the island’s primary trading partner during the Cold War. From paper products to construction materials, there is a lot of opportunity there for Georgia-Pacific, Home Depot and others.

None of this will be easy.

Cuba’s is a planned economy with controls and limitations on the kind of free-market activities that drive the American economy. But that is changing, gradually.

That said, any conversation about doing business with Cuba has to include mention of its unique human infrastructure. Experts tell us the workforce of the 21st century global economy requires people who are literate, healthy and entrepreneurial. Cuba has a 99 percent literacy rate and one of the world’s most highly regarded health care systems.

Not surprisingly, after 50 years of American embargoes and withdrawal of Soviet economic support, Cubans remain incredibly resourceful and resilient. It will be fascinating to watch U.S. philanthropies and business entities tailor their practices to a population with these attributes.

Finally, it would be a big mistake to think of our relations with Cuba as a one-way street. Clearly, a nation with a 99 percent literacy rate has a lot to share with us as well.

Kwanza Hall represents District 2 on the Atlanta City Council.