HAVANA: How much opportunity ?

havana-live-Manzana-de-Gómez-en-restauraciónHAVANA, April 28   In the midst of historic old Havana, the Manzana de Gomez bestrides an entire city block. The 105-year-old landmark was one of the first shopping malls in Cuba, a five-story, European-style shopping arcade with two pedestrian avenues intersecting within.

Like so many other once-elegant buildings around the Cuban capital, it decayed to a husk, its façade embroidered with broken windows and peeling paint. Today, however, the building is surrounded by scaffolding. Construction crews, working on behalf of a joint venture between the Cuban government and Bouygues Batiment International, a French contractor, are restoring the historic mall and remaking it as a luxury hotel.
Kempinski Hotels, a Swiss chain, has signed on to operate the hotel, which is expected to open next year.

By world standards, the Hotel Manzana is not a huge project, but it’s significant within Cuba, which is trying to evolve a new approach from within a single-party, socialist government that has for decades maintained a tight grip on the country’s economy.

To some – those who want to see the U.S. end the nearly 60-year-old trade embargo – it is also a symbol of the type of opportunities that American investors and businesses are currently missing. “There are a lot of American interests that could be accomplished with Cuba,” a representative of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations – “Minrex,” for short – told me over an informal lunch in Havana. “It’s not just about politics. It’s about business.”

Cuba’s interest in American money is obvious. The small communist country is in desperate need of foreign capital as it tries to modernize a creaky economy and rebuild decaying infrastructure across the island. But investors from countries who already trade there say Cuba is making progress.

A few miles away from the Manzana de Gomez, in a part of Havana filled with embassies and old mansions, a large pocket of vacant land sits between a tall hotel run by a Spanish company and Cuba’s national aquarium; the Russian embassy – an imposing and featureless tower built by the former Soviet Union – looms behind it. There is a solitary palm tree and a wide, unobstructed view of the Straits of Florida.

Dundee Corp., a Canadian developer, plans to build a hotel on the land, which it bills as the last significant piece of oceanfront property in Havana’s Miramar district. Guy Chartier, a Dundee executive, told me by phone that the “Monte Barreto Hotel,” a 50/50 joint venture with the Cuban government, will include 716 all-suite rooms and be built to match the hurricane-hardened building code in Florida.

Dundee hopes to break ground by the end of this year and complete construction in about 32 months. Chartier told me they plan to flag the hotel with a Western brand.

“We’re presently negotiating with European operators because Americans today cannot do it,” he said.