Many of you may remember Cuban American businessman Saul Berenthal’s excitement over opening a tractor factory in Cuba with the blessings of President Obama and the apartheid Castro dictatorship. He was so excited, in fact, that he applied for and received from the Castro government permanent residence status in Cuba. This status change now makes him a Cuban citizen, which also means that as a Cuban citizen, he is no longer allowed to own or invest in a company in his own country.
I could just hear my dad now if he were alive today: “Eso te pasa por comemierda…”
Cuban American lost his business bid after obtaining permanent residence in Cuba
Saul Berenthal was to become the first Cuban American investor on the island with a plan to assemble tractors to help small farmers. But his full embrace of his Cuban roots backfired.
The tale of Cleber LLC, a U.S. company that wants to assemble farm tractors in the Mariel Special Development Zone near Havana, is one example of the questions the island’s government will have to face if it wants to attract investments from the Cuban diaspora.
President Barack Obama described the proposal in March by Cleber, owned by Cuban American businessman Saul Berenthal and his partner, Horace Clemmons, as the first business with 100 percent U.S. capital authorized to invest in Cuba in more than half a century.
The goal was to assemble — and in the future produce from the ground up — a line of tractors for small-scale farmers under the Oggun brand, using Cuban labor for the benefit of the Cuban people, Berenthal told the Granma newspaper, official voice of the Cuban Communist Party, in April.
The paper published a report on Berenthal and Clemmons, and praised their idea of using the Open Source Manufacturing Model, which allows easier sourcing of materials. The Juventud Rebelde newspaper earlier published a report on the U.S. investors all but predicting the Cuban government would approve their project.
But Berenthal was told during the Havana International Fair, a business exhibition held Oct. 31-Nov. 4, that the proposal had been rejected.
Berenthal told el Nuevo Herald that the project “was not canceled. More than anything else, it was not authorized.”
The real reason for the rejection was that Berenthal, a 73-year-old retired software engineer who was born in Cuba and lived in the United States since 1960, had obtained permanent residence in Cuba, according to a knowledgeable source who asked for anonymity to speak about the issue.
“Saul got enthusiastic,” the source told el Nuevo Herald.
Berenthal’s “repatriation” put the Cuban government in a difficult position: accept the project, even though it would break its own ban on large investments by Cubans who live on the island, or reject it using an indirect argument. Officials chose the second option.
Berenthal said the government told him the proposal did not meet the Mariel requirements on technology and worker safety.
Berenthal said his repatriation had nothing to do with the government’s decision “because they were aware from the beginning” of his efforts to become a permanent residence. He added that the rejection of the Mariel project “does not mean we will not continue with the project. They suggested we contact the Agriculture Ministry.”
Berenthal’s legal residence on the island — which gave him the right to buy property and obtain free medical care, among other perks — put him at odds with laws that forbid Cubans who live on the island from establishing medium or large-scale companies.
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