American businesses are slowly entering Cuba.

Louisville entrepreneur Jonathan Blue has become one of the first U.S. company owners to sign a business deal with a Cuban company since the two countries’ presidents, Barack Obama and Raúl Castro, agreed to normalize trade relations.

The deal by Blue, chairman and managing director of Blue Equity LLC, is with Cuban entrepreneur Pedro Rodriguez, a Havana-based talent scout. Rodriguez will scout performing artists in Cuba on behalf of Blue’s talent company, Blue Entertainment Sports Television (BEST).

“We see so much potential in Cuba,” Blue told USA Today earlier this week. The Louisville businessman has been traveling to Cuba for years, even before the the U.S. began to lift the trade ban it had imposed on the communist island nation more than 50 years ago. “We’ve done this all over the world, so Cuba is just such a natural, close market. We’re big believers in the long-term potential there.”

According to the USA Today article, “Rodriguez will find artists in Cuba and funnel them to Blue’s BEST company, which will then serve as their agents for events in the U.S. and elsewhere.”

However, the article noted that commercial doors between the two countries are not yet entirely open. For example, Blue said his firm could also represent the Cuban artists in Cuba, but if one of the artists performs at an event paid for by the Cuban government, Blue could not receive any compensation for that because it would violate U.S. law.

Regulations passed by the Obama administration allow U.S. companies to hire Cuban workers, and lets those workers establish bank accounts in the U.S. to make it easier to get paid. However, said Carlos Saladrigas, a Cuban-American businessman in Miami and chairman of the Cuba Study Group, there are still matters to be tested.

“The difficulty is that in [the American] system, everything is legal unless it is prohibited,” Saladrigas told USA Today. “In Cuba, everything is prohibited unless it is made legal. That leaves Cubans in a legal limbo.”

Jonathan Blue | Photo courtesy Jonathan Blue
Jonathan Blue | Photo courtesy Jonathan Blue

The Blue-Rodriguez deal is very much out in the open. Earlier this week, they held a signing ceremony and press conference at the José Martí Cultural Society headquarters in Havana to announce the new partnership.

Blue has been a force in opening Cuban trade relations not only for himself but also for all Kentucky-based companies. Last fall, he provided the impetus for a fact-finding mission to Cuba sponsored by The World Trade Center of Kentucky, as previously reported by Insider Louisville.

“Jonathan is a true business visionary,” said Trade Center president Ed Webb. “He pushed us to do that mission. On the other hand, I turned it back on him. I told him, ‘If you don’t lead the mission, it won’t get done.’ He understands business startups and how to sniff out opportunities.”

Webb said Blue’s new venture epitomizes the only kind of thinking that will make trade work between the two countries. “It has to be a ‘we sell/we buy’ model to be successful. American companies can’t only be looking for overseas customers for their products. They also have to see opportunities to buy something from those overseas producers, whether it’s raw materials, manufacturing components, technology, research, processes and procedures, innovations of all kinds.”

In Blue’s case, it was recognizing a whole field of untapped performing talent. But Webb noted that, on their trip to Cuba last fall, they were made aware of the enormous strides being taken in medical procedures and techniques, spurred by Russian research done in Cuba over so many decades when the former Soviet Union held sway. He is encouraging Kentucky’s burgeoning medical research community to explore future avenues, and Sherry Mulkins, the Trade Center’s vice president, client outreach and development, is already planning for another mission to Cuba in October.

“This is all new terrain,” Augusto Maxwell, the Miami attorney who helped craft the Blue-Rodriguez contract, told USA Today. “We’ve moved from a situation where Cubans weren’t even allowed to enter a hotel room for fear they would come into unauthorized contact with Americans, to one where American companies are welcomed to be in Cuba and Cubans are welcome to provide services to them. This deal is another step in that direction.”

Carlos Salidrigas said Blue’s new deal – crafted, finalized and announced in full view and completely open to scrutiny – could pave the way for other companies to take the plunge. “The good news is that they are happening and they’re growing,” he told USA Today. “It is leaving the Cuban government with few options but to come around to the idea that (these deals) have to be recognized and made legal. I hope they do.”

Steve Kaufman

Steve Kaufman

Steve Kaufman has been writing professionally since the Johnson administration (Lyndon, not Andrew) on all manner of subjects, from sports to city hall to sales and marketing to running a medical practice to designing stores. His journey has taken him from Chicago to Buffalo to New York to Atlanta to Cincinnati, before landing, finally, in Louisville.