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One of the coldest political relationships in the history of the Americas got a flash warming this winter, when a 45-minute phone call from President Obama to Cuba’s President Raul Castro in Havana rocked the geopolitical world, and in the strangest of ways, revived one of my long-forgotten pending bucket list items: selling auto parts in Cuba. I’m the son of Cuban exiles; as a matter of fact, I was the first member of my family born in exile in Puerto Rico, the place I have always called home.
Little more than half a century later, I’m as old as the U.S. embargo on Cuba. From childhood to this very moment, Cuba has been a big part of my life, even though the closest I have ever been to its coasts is 90 miles away from the famed Key West marker. Lots of my friends are Cuban or of Cuban descent. So are many of my customers, partners and collaborators; indeed, oftentimes my own peeps can’t figure out if I’m Cuban or Puerto Rican.
Far from any political grandstanding from me on the merits of lifting the embargo and smoking a peace pipe with the Castro brothers (a cigar is probably a more likely peace offering in this case), I eagerly wait on the sidelines. Truthfully, I’m really torn on this, for I have lived with the pain of loss from so many who were ravaged by the Castro’s bloody revolution and dictatorial regime.
I’ve known anti-communist political prisoners jailed for more than 20 years, have gone to school with orphans killed by revolutionary firing squads and grew up with the best four grandparents anyone could have. My grandparents were resilient folks who figured out a way to restart their mature lives after the Cuban diaspora, far away from their home in a decades-old slow grind to realize they will probably never go back to their homes in their lifetime, while finding joy in their new lives. But, I can also see through the pain and fully realize that our current political policy with Cuba, while survived by nine presidential administrations going back to JFK, has done little to create change for Cubans anywhere.
I don’t want any part of the political debate on this — hell, I’m already playing with fire with my own Dad for writing this much already (sorry, Papi). Truthfully, all I want is to figure out a way to do what I’ve learned to do best, and sell some auto parts in Cuba.
For most of my adult life I have had countless discussions with friends in the industry about the day Cuba will be free, and how many auto parts we will all sell there. And while a free Cuba is not even on the long-range radar today, trade will commence soon enough; however, now I’m not so sure Cuba will be the proverbial “low hanging fruit” auto parts market we all hypothesized it would be.
To sell auto parts, we all need broken cars and trucks, and Cuba has more cars junked than running — the problem for us is that they are just not the rights cars. We simply don’t have the parts for them. The Cuban vehicle parc is an abomination, a rolling museum of pre-revolution “Yankee Tanks” mixed with Soviet block Ladas, Yugos and Moskvitches. Earlier this year, the Cuban government lifted restrictions prohibiting Cubans from buying and selling cars, and now a small but growing fleet of Chinese Geelys account for half of the vehicles imported to Cuba; but, little has changed, since Cubans just don’t have enough money to buy any cars.
How can we even begin to leverage all of our core competencies in such a dissimilar market? This is a challenge that will impact many of us in the coming years. I suspect those of us left who are still really good at selling points and condensers, inner tubes and hose clamps will probably get a head start in the post-embargo Cuban auto parts market. Beyond the vehicle park, poverty and the lack of logistical infrastructure will be close to insurmountable; forget about eCommerce and mobile apps, meeting the needs of the Cuban market is back to the basics. Efficient marketers learn to adapt to their customers’ needs. For me, restarting Cuba might end up being the biggest adaptation of them all: shed the tech, embrace the basic, dust off the paper catalogs and bring lots of matches to enjoy a 50-year backlog of cigars.