HAVANA – A yellow excavator, forklift and other heavy equipment made by U.S. firm Caterpillar gleam outside Cuba’s annual trade fair, reflecting once-bright hopes for increased U.S.-Cuban commerce fanned by the 2014 detente between the old Cold War foes.
But inside the pavilion where U.S. firms present their wares, only eight have stands this year, according to a Reuters count. That is down from 13 last year and several dozens in 2015-16, underscoring the decline in U.S. business interest since Donald Trump became president.
Last year, the Trump administration tightened the decades-old trade embargo on the Communist-run island once more and sharply reduced staffing at the U.S. embassy in Havana due to a series of health incidents among U.S. diplomats.
“Trump has scared everyone off,” said Eduardo Aparicio, general manager of U.S. logistics company Apacargoexpress, operating under an exemption to the embargo allowing U.S. companies to sell food and medical supplies here.
Aparicio says he is struggling to find U.S. firms keen on doing business with Cuba, given fears of reprisals from the Trump administration.
“Not that many things have changed with the Trump administration but the outlook has. It no longer feels like we are advancing,” said Jay Brickman, vice president of Florida-based shipping company Crowley Maritime Corporation, which has been shipping to Cuba for 17 years.
“If you are a corporate executive who feels like nothing is happening, then eventually you look elsewhere.”
Brickman, Aparicio and others at Cuba’s premier business event said the country’s dire financial situation was another factor in declining U.S. business interest. Cuba is battling a cash crunch amid lower aid from ally Venezuela and weaker exports.
Brickman said Cuban orders via his firm were down 10 percent this year.
U.S. companies had embraced Cuba in the wake of the detente reached by former U.S. and Cuban Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro, jostling for a foothold in an opening market of 11 million consumers.
Lawyers working with U.S. firms interested in doing business with Cuba say the larger ones are taking a long-term view and remain keen.
Heavy equipment maker Caterpillar, for example, had lobbied to sell in Cuba for years before one of its dealers, privately held Puerto Rican company Rimco, said last year it was opening a distribution center here.
“This is the beginning of a lot of things to come,” Rimco Vice President Caroline McConnie said of the machinery displayed outside the pavilion.
McConnie said Rimco would look to rent as well as sell machines in Cuba given its cash crunch, and expected to announce its first two deals soon: one to rent equipment for quarries and another to sell marine motors for tugboats.
“We will benefit from the first movers’ advantage,” she said.