March 14, 2003

Jones Discusses Trade With Cuba

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Kirby Jones, president of Alamar Industries, the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association and frequent interviewer of Fidel Castro, gave a lecture to over 50 students and faculty members yesterday in 165 McGraw Hall.

Jones has been involved in negotiations to allow the first sale of U.S. products to Cuba in more than 40 years and has been described in the New York Times as the “man to see about business in Cuba.” His speech focused on the current environment for American-owned businesses in Cuba and the changes that have occured since the U.S. embargo on trade was first imposed in 1962.

Jones stated that contrary to popular belief, there is in fact quite a large amount of business being conducted in Cuba by American-owned companies. Last year over $250 million worth of food products were sold to Cuba with a promise from that country to purchase $250 million worth of goods next year. He also stressed that there is not simply one large conglomeration conducting affairs, but rather there are hundreds of companies operating in 38 states that are currently in the country.

Adressing the issue of the possibility of trading in a country with an embargo placed on it, Jones said that “the actual practice of it is essentially open.”

Businesses can either work through their subsidiaries in other countries or obtain special permission from the U.S. government to establish a direct relationship in legal areas of commerce.

According to Jones, the U.S.’s relationship with Cuba is far different from any other country in the world. Jones likened the relationship to a row of doors. He stated that Cuba is on one side of the wall and the world is on the other side. After the fall of the Soviet Union, which Jones asserted effectually destroyed Cuban beaurocracy, the door “opened wide and the rest of the world walked into Cuba”.

However, for the United States, “the door opened just a crack” at the end of 2001. He later stressed that “that crack of the door is not an insignificant crack”. The only industries which have not been infiltrated by foreign owned companies are the military, education, and healthcare, all of which are government-regulated.

Jones then focused his lecture on the idea that while a lot has been done to improve the process of cultivating business relations with Cuba, “there is a lot to do to normalize the process,” starting with increased awareness of the situation. He stated that the episode of Elian Gonzalez was the key event that turned things around and got people interested in Cuban politics again.

“I like it when I can help create an understanding of what’s going on,” Jones said.

Jones concluded his speech with a brief discussion of Fidel Castro. Jones stated that there is a host of new young people in their 30s and 40s running the government who believe in the privatization of certain markets and that the death of Castro “is not going to change that.”

The talk was followed by a brief but spirited question and answer session. Questions ranged from concerns over the creation of classes among Cuban citizens to the Cuban people’s feelings towards Americans and the problem of combining elements of socialism and capitalism.

Audience members were receptive to Jones and were particularly interested in his personal experiences in the country.

Urbashi Poddar ’04 commented that attending the lecture, “was a good way to get information besides reading articles,” and that it was interesting to listen to someone “who is constantly having hands-on experience, as opposed to reading a book.”

“I found it incredibly interesting that Jones said the Cuban people make the distinction between American policy and the American people, and that they feel no ill will towards us,” said Michael Pessiki ’04.

Jones was invited to speak by the Latin American Studies Program and the Cornell Institute of Public Affairs (CIPA) as part of CIPA’s weekly colloquim featuring prominent guest speakers.

Antonio Javier ’04, attending the lecture as part of CIPA’s colloquim said that he was glad that CIPA was able to “try to bring in something that’s pertinent to public policy today.”

Archived article by James Marceda