Illinois firms race to establish foothold in Cuba – Chicago Tribune


When Cuba’s foreign minister raised his nation’s single-star flag outside its newly opened embassy in Washington last month, construction equipment giant Caterpillar did the same outside its Peoria headquarters.

Caterpillar is one of a growing number of Illinois and Chicago-area companies, civic organizations and cultural institutions rushing into a nationwide race to establish a foothold in the tiny communist country just 90 miles off the Florida shore — a potential trove of new profits on an island that has been off-limits, for the most part, for more than a half-century.

“Just about everybody focuses on the tens of thousands of 60-year-old cars that are on the streets, but for Caterpillar, we focus on the 60-year-old roads they are being driven on. That’s where we see our opportunity,” said Bill Lane, the company’s director of global government affairs.

“We believe music is that cultural bridge,” said Josephine Lee, the choir’s president and artistic director. Touring “is life-altering for our kids and for the people they visit.”

As Cuba prepares for the influx of tourists, Illinois businesses see related opportunities, particularly if trade restrictions are eased further.

Roy Donoso, whose companies in Chicago and throughout Latin America consult on construction projects, will trek to the Cuban city of Trinidad next month. Through a company he owns in Ecuador, he is competing for a contract to provide environmental consulting on a 400-room hotel project in the Cuban city.

The contract would be a small one. “This is more of an investment in the future,” said Donoso, president of Sumac, which specializes in energy efficiency work. “Obviously we want to be there before anyone else.”

United Airlines is pursuing government approval to launch service to Cuba from hubs in Houston and Newark. The airline declined to comment on whether it has plans for additional routes.

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