Doing Business in Cuba

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By Ludmila (Mila) Rusakova Golovine

The last year has brought a tremendous development onto the world stage and one which could have considerable ramifications on international business. On December 17, 2014 US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro issued a statement declaring that their respective countries would take steps to re-establish diplomatic relations and loosen travel and trade restrictions which have been in place for decades. Then, barely six months later, Cuba re-opened an official embassy in Washington D. C. as the US President restored full diplomatic relations.

Due to the rapidity of change, Cuba’s proximity to the United States and its citizens’ longstanding connections to the country, the impending changes to the political relationship could be a boon to new business opportunities between the two countries. Nevertheless, despite improvement on the political level, cultural differences will still remain. It is only by being aware of these differences and possessing the skills to deal with them, that American businesspeople will be able to take advantage of these new opportunities.

Firstly, although the political situation is improving, there are still many systemic differences. Cuba remains a one-party state and the Communist Party still has considerable influence over and involvement in Cuban society. Consequently, there is still no freedom of speech in the country. Any criticism of the government should be avoided for both practical reasons and general politeness. If your Cuban counterpart engages in such criticism, it is best to take a neutral stance. This should not be a great hardship since, as a general rule, one should not mix politics with business. If business is not being discussed then family is always a good topic in which to engage. Cubans, as in most cultures, enjoy discussing family and this will be a good means to develop rapport.

It is also important to ask permission before taking a photograph of someone, especially the military or police. Due to the political system there is still a fair amount of distrust of foreign intentions.

Communication should not be a problem in Cuba. Most Cuban businesspeople speak English. Nevertheless, it is important to find out ahead of time whether or not a Spanish interpreter will be necessary. Furthermore, it is always advisable to learn a few introductory phrases and expressions of gratitude in Spanish. Demonstrating that you took the time and effort to learn a little Spanish will make a good impression on your Cuban counterpart.
There are several important aspects of Cuban etiquette that differ greatly from the American way. Believe it or not, interrupting someone who is speaking is not considered rude. Should this happen, it should not be taken as disrespectful. Also, not looking at someone while you are speaking is considered rude. This action should be avoided at all costs. Profanity in English is considered a sign of low education and should be eschewed. This should not be difficult since profanity is usually avoided in business anyway; however, it is important to keep in mind that in the Cuban context it is especially offensive.

In terms of engaging in business, the best route is to contact the Cuban Chamber of Commerce. As stated previously, the government is highly involved in business so dealing with bureaucracy will be necessary. Once this hurdle is overcome actual meetings can be arranged. Meeting punctuality is a one way street in Cuba. Usually the host will be late while the guest, in this case the American pursuing the business opportunity, will need to arrive on time or even early.

Negotiation can be very tough in Cuba; however, it is done in a friendly way. In fact, there is a saying that an argument is not over until both parties are exhausted. It is crucial to show patience and not lose your self-control. Otherwise, the business endeavor will most likely not move forward.

For almost six decades, Cuba was cut off from the United States, barring both cultural interaction and business. Thanks to the calming effect of time and a shift in political thinking it appears that the two countries can now engage once again not only politically but commercially. This new situation will only be prosperous if the entrepreneurs wishing to take advantage of these new opportunities can adapt to the cultural differences of doing business in Cuba.

Ludmila (Mila) Rusakova Golovine , Founder, CEO and President, MasterWord Services, Inc., can be reached at mgolovine@masterword.com or 281-589-0810 or via www.masterword.com.

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