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SIDE BUSINESS BLOG: New-style Cuban Communism comes to Bradenton with salesmanship

BRADENTON -- Probably for the first time in their lives, quite a few Manatee County business people met a genuine Communist this week.

Not that they would have known if they hadn't previously been informed. On Tuesday, José Ramón Cabañas, head of the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C., came to the Manatee-Sarasota area on a junket intended to build interest in tourism and trade with Cuba. A career bureaucrat, Cabañas has been pushing the idea of private U.S. business investment in Cuba since President Barack Obama ordered a thaw in relations with Cuba on Dec. 17.

Listening to the man, you'd think he is a hard-core capitalist. First off, he was in town to speak at an event sponsored by the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, an organization that is not known for its Marxist leanings.

At the dais at Renaissance on 9th, Cabañas talked of shipping trade between Florida ports and Cuba's newly built, privately financed port at Mariel. He said Cuba is interested in bringing manufacturers, warehousers and shippers into the port to set up shop in the adjacent industrial park.

The island nation also wants tourism and business tourism in the country to patronize Cuba's hospitality industry and its medical service industry. Both industries have been patronized by nations around the world during the a five-decade-plus U.S. absence from the country.

Cabañas didn't even hint at Communist doctrine or conditions that the Castro regime might want to place on a new relationship with the U.S.

"We have plenty of opportunities to share," he said. "We will do best if we create bridges."

So, will local businesses like Port Manatee be selling out on long-held U.S. anti-Communist doctrine if they trade with Cuba? In the minds of many Americans of Cuban decent, yes.

But from the perspective of the nation's post-Cold War dealings with China, Vietnam and even Russia, exchanging dollars and tourists with Cuba will probably do more to thaw a relationship that Cabañas noted to have been dysfunctional since the U.S. got involved with the fight for Cuban independence in 1898.

Regardless of the growing pains to come, it seems that Cabañas understands as well as anyone the value of good salesmanship. Sure, Gov. Rick Scott has advocated against ending sanctions and a trade embargo with Cuba. But if the mood in the room on Tuesday was any indication, business leaders will probably work to push aside political objections once the profit motive becomes strong enough.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter@MattAtBradenton.

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