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Cuba is hungry for foreign investment. Because of the warmer relations with the U.S., there are more tourists visiting the island, and it's been good for the country's economy. To keep it moving, Cuban authorities are ready to loosen some state control to get it. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, Communist Cuba has even opened a free trade zone.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: If you could start selling something in Cuba, what would be a surefire moneymaker? Something that hasn't been widely available in more than 50 years in the state-controlled economy that has pent-up demand and would surely spruce up the place after decades of neglect. Mexican businessman Jaime Murow Troice is already selling it - paint.
Here at his automated paint factory outside Mexico City, a giant injector fills metal cans with basic white primer. About 20 percent of Murow's current production goes to Cuba. But come next year, he's banking on selling even more while also saving on shipping costs and import fees. He's one of the first companies to be approved as a tenant in Cuba's new Special Enterprise Zone.
JAIME MUROW TROICE: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "We've been working in the Cuban market for a while. We know it," says Murow. So when the opportunity came up to actually manufacture in the free trade zone in the port of Mariel, Murow says he jumped on it.
Mariel, located 30 miles west of Havana, is probably better known for the mass boatlift in 1980 of tens of thousands of Cubans from its shores than the key to Cuba's economic future. But today a steady stream of tractor-trailers roll into the brand-new port at a cost of a billion dollars, financed mostly by Brazil. When finished, it will cover 180 square miles, will reportedly be able to handle up to 4 million containers a year and will house the free trade zone where foreigners can claim 100 percent ownership of their companies and enjoy huge tax breaks.
ROBERTO GONZALEZ CHACON: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "I think it's going to bring a lot of advantages to the country. It's a grand development," says electrician Roberto Gonzalez Chacon on his way to work.
Workers already in the port make far more than the monthly average of about $20. One crane operator told me he takes home about $300 a month.
OMAR EVELENY PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "All this development is going to raise Cuba's standard of living which will raise our own purchasing power," says Omar Eveleny Perez, an economist at the University of Havana. He warns, though, that the ongoing U.S. embargo threatens that progress. One of the biggest obstacles to foreign shippers is, if they dock in Cuba's ports, they're then barred from entering the U.S. for six months. But it's not just the U.S. embargo making foreigners nervous about taking the Cuban plunge. Uncertainty over how and when the state will loosen its tight grip on the economy is dampening enthusiasm. During a recent fact-finding trip to the island, U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker told NPR that we'll have to wait and see how quickly Cuba moves toward freer trade.
PENNY PRITZKER: I think that the Cuban government is in an evolution, and how fast that change is or exactly where that change is going is still not totally clear.
KAHN: Among foreign companies' concerns are the cumbersome bureaucracy and employment rules that mandates all workers for the free trade factories must be hired through a Cuban agency and paid at state-controlled wages. Enrique Palacio was hired by the Cuban employment firm to run Mexico's new paint company in the free trade zone. He says foreigners shouldn't doubt that they'll make profits, but he says Cuba must benefit too.
ENRIQUE PALACIOS: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "We are not capitalists," says Palacio during an interview in a large conference room at Devox Paint's Havana headquarters. A huge mural of Fidel and Che Guevara fill one wall. "We are happily entering into this new era," he says, but he adds, "We will continue to defend our interests as well." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Havana.
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