SARASOTA, Fla. (Feb. 23, 2018) – USF Sarasota-Manatee hosted a day-long seminar about Cuba and the Caribbean islands on Thursday with panels of internationally renowned experts that included two representatives of Congress and a former U.S. diplomat, among others.
The seminar, “Cuba and the Caribbean: What Now?” focused on past and current travel and investment options in Cuba, the nation’s economic and political outlook, and the impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria last summer on Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Florida Keys.
“We have a really special program today with several panels of truly engaging speakers,” Dr. Karen Holbrook, regional chancellor for USFSM, said in opening remarks at USFSM’s Selby Auditorium.
She welcomed Vicki Huddleston, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1999 to 2002 and a former ambassador to Mali. Among a dozen speakers, Huddleston led off with a brief history of U.S.-Cuba relations, including her time as a diplomat, and the importance of engaging with a nation just 90 miles away.
Strategically, it makes sense for the United States and Cuba to have strong ties, she said. Not doing so, “hurts the Cuban people and it hurts our business people who are investing in Cuba.”
In addition to Huddleston, Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett, who represents the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Congressman Carlos Curbelo of Florida’s 26th Congressional District, addressed the crowd. Plaskett said she supported better relations with Cuba, as well, but warned of increased U.S. investment at the expense of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, which also seek to expand their business interests.
Among the highlights, Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, talked about the exuberance expressed by ordinary Cubans two years ago at the initial restoration of diplomatic ties with the U.S. and relaxation of travel and investment restrictions. However, subsequent restrictions last fall and a decision by the Cuban government to halt the issuance of business licenses dampened the enthusiasm.
Overall, Laverty sounded optimistic about the future of U.S.-Cuba ties, saying the Trump Administration had left intact most of the changes enacted earlier and that relations with Cuba are farther along than 10 years ago. Back then, he said, Cuban leaders viewed talk of diplomacy or the lifting of business restrictions as “taboo.”
“You need to look at this in the context of the last 10 years,” he said.
David Seleski, president and CEO of Stonegate Bank, agreed, but noted the future of investment in Cuba depends on U.S. leadership. He said that typically, as U.S. policy toward Cuba tightens, hardliners in the Cuban government become emboldened to clamp down on private enterprise and pull back democratic reforms.
Stonegate, now owned by Home BancShares, made headlines in 2015 when it became the first U.S. bank in 50 years approved to conduct business in Cuba.
The seminar wasn’t all about Cuba, though. In the afternoon, the discussion revolved mostly around the impacts of hurricanes Maria and Irma last summer.
Highlighting the discussion, security expert Luke Bencie, managing director of Security Management International, talked about the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Bencie arrived with food, medicine and other items on a plane owned by businessman and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.
Reaching the island before most aid agencies, Bencie and his team used chainsaws to clear downed trees from roads. In addition to bringing supplies, they crisscrossed the island with satellite phones to connect businesses, tourists, students and others with loved ones on the mainland.
With more than 90 percent of homes without electricity, fuel emerged as the principle commodity as homes and businesses turned to generators to keep the power on, he said. Frequently, the team bartered to acquire fuel to continue its outreach.
Congresswoman Plaskett and Congressman Curbelo focused on the storms’ impacts in their districts and said some areas are still struggling. Curbelo, whose district includes the Florida Keys, said business closures resulted in workers leaving the area for jobs elsewhere, but many haven’t returned.
“We have a severe labor shortage right now,” he said, adding the middle keys were hit hardest.
Plaskett said her district was grateful for the millions in federal disaster aid, but said the islands – St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas – require more assistance for infrastructure and schools. “We have nine schools that were destroyed,” she said.
David Kotok, co-founder and chief investment officer of Sarasota-based Cumberland Advisors, and one of the primary organizers of Thursday’s event, closed the seminar by offering his thanks to the speakers and attendees. He said he hopes to hold similar events in the future at USFSM.