So, tell us again Mr. President (and all the rest of the proponents of lifting sanctions against Cuba’s repressive apartheid regime) how billions of U.S. dollars invested in Cuba’s viciously repressive apartheid regime will bring democracy and freedom to the island.
Want to Do Business in Cuba? All Roads Lead to Raúl Castro’s Son-in-Law
Things are changing rapidly in Cuba, and people from around the world are eager to get in on the action. Wait until they meet their new partner.
Omar Everleny Pérez is eager to show me how far Raúl Castro’s overhaul of Cuba’s socialist economy has advanced, and so, on a muggy evening in August, the 54-year-old economist invites me into his home in Havana’s Marianao neighborhood. Above his cramped desk, shelves sag under the weight of economics books and monographs, including more than a dozen that Pérez wrote. “Just look at this,” he says, pointing to the screen of his wheezy black desktop PC. He clicks on a file, and scenes of Havana’s colonial-era port appear. A female narrator with a soothing voice describes a 14-part government plan to replace the gritty piers with cruise ship terminals, restaurants, and hotels, all to be bankrolled by foreign investors. Run-down warehouses fade digitally into luxury apartments, shops and offices, and marinas crowded with yachts. Little virtual people jog and bike along greenways where an oil refinery now sits, and a ferry glides into a modern glass-and-steel terminal.
“It’s really visionary, what they want to do, if you think about it,” says Pérez, a professor at the University of Havana and a researcher at the influential Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy.
Later, a few steps from the port in Old Havana, I see the city’s redevelopment in progress. Near El Floridita, where Ernest Hemingway once knocked back daiquiris, the hulking Manzana de Gómez building is being transformed into a five-star hotel. Stylish boutiques sell perfume and stereos. Inside an old warehouse is a microbrewery teeming with people drinking lager made in huge steel tanks imported from Austria.
What isn’t immediately apparent to a person taking a walk on a warm Caribbean night is that all of this—and anything else that stands to make money in Old Havana, and much of the rest of the country—is run by a man who is little known outside the opaque circles of Cuba’s authoritarian regime. A quiet general in the Revolutionary Armed Forces, Cuba’s multibranch military, he has spent his life around the communist elite that served Fidel Castro’s revolution. Yet he is chairman of the largest business empire in Cuba, a conglomerate that comprises at least 57 companies owned by the Revolutionary Armed Forces and operated under a rigid set of financial benchmarks developed over decades. It’s a decidedly capitalist element deeply embedded within socialist Cuba.
This is Luis Alberto Rodriguez. For the better part of three decades, Rodriguez has worked directly for Raúl Castro. He’s the gatekeeper for most foreign investors, requiring them to do business with his organization if they wish to set up shop on the island. If and when the U.S. finally removes its half-century embargo on Cuba, it will be this man who decides which investors get the best deals.
Rodriguez doesn’t just count Castro as a longtime boss. He’s family. More than 20 years ago, Rodriguez, a stocky, square-jawed son of a general, married Deborah Castro, Raúl’s daughter. In the past five years, Castro has vastly increased the size of Rodriguez’s business empire, making him one of the most powerful men in Cuba. Rodriguez’s life is veiled in secrecy. He’s rarely been photographed or quoted in the media, and his age isn’t publicly known. (He’s thought to be 55.) Rodriguez and the other Cuban government officials in this story declined multiple requests for comment.
But Castro has kept the big-money industries in the hands of the state, and much of it is managed by his son-in-law. (Or former son-in-law; there are rumors, difficult to confirm, that Rodriguez and Deborah Castro have divorced.) Rodriguez’s Grupo de Administración Empresarial runs companies that account for about half the business revenue produced in Cuba, says Peréz. Other economists say it may be closer to 80 percent.
GAESA, as it’s called (it’s pronounced guy-A-suh), owns almost all of the retail chains in Cuba and 57 of the mainly foreign-run hotels from Havana to the country’s finest Caribbean beaches. GAESA has restaurant and gasoline station chains, rental car fleets, and companies that import everything from cooking oil to telephone equipment. Rodriguez is also in charge of Cuba’s most important base for global trade and foreign investment: a new container ship terminal and 465-square-kilometer (180-square-mile) foreign trade zone in Mariel.
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