December 19, 2014
For more than a decade, leading voices in the Bahamian business community have demanded that government take seriously the economic threat that would exist when Cuba eventually "opened up" and with newly restored diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. making headlines around the world, some of those voices are today querying whether The Bahamas is ready.
Pinewood MP Khaalis Rolle now serves as the minister of state for investments, and the head -- under Prime Minister Perry Christie -- of the National Economic Council, which evaluates and approves foreign direct investment projects in The Bahamas. Rolle came to politics from the business community, where he was the first chairman of the merged Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation and former president of the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce.
Rolle is also the founder of Nassau Water Ferries Services, and recently was singled out by Christie for his business experience. "He is one of you," Christie said to a private sector audience recently.
Rolle and other private sector spokespersons have spent the last 10 years or more urging government to plan a response to the U.S. dropping its embargo against Cuba, and to figure out how to respond to a newly-accessible Cuban tourism and industrial environment.
"If you do an analysis to see whether or not The Bahamas actually planned for [Cuba's eventual release from the embargo], I don't know that you're going to get any positive feedback on that," he told Guardian Business.
"That's why its so important that we have this national development plan. We should have done this many years ago. We should have done a SWOT analysis (a system which involves the identification of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats). The Bahamas has never really done integrated and comprehensive SWOT analysis and planned by that," he pointed out.
"So here we are. We predicted this many years ago and it looks as if it's happening and we have to react to it... Either you change or you die," the minister added.
Businessman Dionisio D'Aguilar, owner of the Superwash chain of laundromats and an outspoken business advocate, also spoke to the need for adaptability. His view, though, is that as Cuba is opened up to investors, The Bahamas must ensure that it remains as attractive as possible.
"You've just got a very, very business-unfriendly immigration policy. They (the government) don't think so, but it is. The perception is that it is. You speak to everybody who's in business, and it's just a very exhausting and debilitating process that our politicians can't seem to get their heads around," he said.
"When I was president of the Chamber, I put forward the idea that if you put in an application for a work permit, that you're told in 20 business days. I don't see why we can't do that."
"But we don't have a business-friendly government," he added. "So they don't understand the complexities of doing business."
D'Aguilar expects that Cuba will "absolutely" do all it can to ensure the ease of doing business for foreign investors.
"They have the benefit of entering the game last so they know what to do right. Doing business is not going to be easy in Cuba because of their regime, but I'm sure that over time, this is where we're going to have to up our game, this is where we're going to have to make The Bahamas attractive.
"We're going to lose some tourist product because it's just a different destination, but in terms of industry -- look at what they've got going for them.
"We should immediately up our game. But there are no businessmen in the political directorate and they just don't get it," he said. "They just don't get it."
Almost as if to underline D'Aguilar's and Rolle's concerns, Blue Diamond Hotels and Resorts -- which owns the Memories Resort in Freeport -- announced that it had acquired a former Riu property in Cuba which will now be operated as Memories Holguin Resort. Earlier in December, another Blue Diamond brand, Royalton, opened another resort in Cuba, the Royalton Hicacos Varadero Resort and Spa.
Rolle told The Guardian that during a closed meeting at the Fifth CARICOM-Cuba Summit in Havana a week ago, Cuban President Raul Castro told Prime Minister Perry Christie that Cuba is like the "forbidden fruit" -- people will be attracted to it just because it is there.
"Anytime you have a new frontier -- like Cuba -- for investors, they look at the climate for improving their returns on investment. They look at industries that are easy to enter, that may not be as capital-intensive, and that -- because its new -- they are the first movers and they can get a greater return on their investment," he said.
"So as soon as (Cuba) is fully released from the sanctions they will be a major competitor for The Bahamas and for the region."
The minister said that while The Bahamas is "good" in tourism, the jurisdiction is not the best it can be.
"We have some of the notable investments in the region, with Atlantis and Baha Mar, and from the industrial side we have the Grand Bahama Container Port, and we're very good at attracting the cruise lines," he said.
"But we have to look at all of the things we are doing and we have to up our game."
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