Washington — A U.S. plastics delegation is back from an historic first trip to Cuba and already planning the next visit.
The Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. President and CEO Bill Carteaux, along with Plastic Pipe Institute CEO Tony Radoszewski and SPI Vice President for International Affairs and Trade Michael Taylor, returned from the fact-finding mission in Havana March 24 and are making plans to return to Cuba as soon as June, on a trade mission with more U.S. plastics industry leaders.
The trip coincided with President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba.
While Carteaux highlighted some of the fun parts of the trip via Twitter — including a baseball game — most of the five-day visit was all business, including two plant tours and meetings with Adriana Barceló Permuy, the general director for industrial management at Cuba’s Ministry of Industry.
“We saw a lot of opportunity,” said Taylor, who already has several SPI member companies in mind for the June trade trip. “I think there is something there for all segments of our industry,” he said.
The facility visits included a bag manufacturer running extrusion lines and welding bags, which Taylor said was “very state-of-the-art,” and an injection molding company making dinnerware and running aging Chinese equipment.
Meetings with the Ministry of Industry included discussion of Cuba’s strategic plan to improve several plastics end markets, including infrastructure, packaging and medical.
U.S.-Cuba relations are beginning to normalize for the first time since 1960. Tourism has been a focus of the thaw, but it is already taxing the Cuban infrastructure. According to Reuters, Cuba hosted a record 3.52 million visitors last year, up 17.4 percent from 2014. American visits rose 77 percent to 161,000, not counting hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans.
All on an island with only 63,000 hotel rooms nationwide.
Economist Bill Wood says that the travel and tourism potential will be the first driver for a potential plastics industry in Cuba, and for U.S. plastics companies to begin selling their wares there, particularly now that Carnival cruise lines has secured a route and expected to start sailing for Havana from Miami May 1.
“Having to serve tourists is going to be a great thing. Any time there’s commerce, we know that plastics can’t be far behind,” Wood says. “We have now introduced the element of hope and that’s always good for plastics.”
Taylor and SPI remain cautiously hopeful. While it is a new market with export growth potential close to the United States, it is still a limited market, Taylor said, especially for plastics machinery, and European companies already have a foothold there. And legislation remains a problem for U.S. companies looking to break into the Cuban market.
“The embargo is, I think, a pretty large impediment,” Taylor said. “[SPI is] obviously going to be advocating to have that taken away. But that’s not a small undertaking in Congress right now.”
The 1960 embargo has been codified into law over the years, requiring more than a presidential go-ahead to do business with or in Cuba. The 1996 law, known as the Helms-Burton Act, and five other existing laws severely restrict any U.S. commerce with Cuba that is not related to humanitarian relief.
There also is ample animosity on Capitol Hill toward President Raúl Castro and his brother, Cuban revolutionary and longtime leader Fidel Castro, particularly among Cuban-Americans in the Republican party. And with the presidential election taking up most of the political oxygen in the room this year, it is questionable whether Congress will make changes to Cuba policy a priority any time soon.