Fleeing Cubans, rafts tied together, wave to a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter south of Key West, Fla. The exodus was steady despite strict U.S. detention policy. Ana Maria Fernandez Haar U.S MARKETERS WAIT FOR OPENING IN CUBA

By Published on .

Ana Maria Fernandez Haar dreams of helping restore the Cuba she knew as a child.

The Miami ad agency executive remembers shopping with her family at a modern Sears, Roebuck & Co. store with escalators and fountains, eating American hot dogs, drinking Coca-Cola and playing with her Hula Hoop.

But that was before the 9-year-old and her family fled Fidel Castro's Communist regime in 1960 and resettled in Miami.

Now as the torrent of refugees continue their mass exodus by boats, rafts and anything that will float from the impoverished Caribbean island, Ms. Fernandez Haar, like many U.S. marketers, hopes the days are near when the Castro regime will fall and the U.S. trade embargo will be lifted so "good old-fashioned American consumerism" may return to her native land.

"Fortune 500 companies are all following the Cuban developments very closely," said Ms. Fernandez Haar, president of IAC Advertising Group, a $16.5 million Hispanic shop whose clients include Johnnie Walker Black, Publix Supermarkets and BellSouth Advertising & Publishing. "Rewind to 1959-all the American brands were there. Products that were household names were Pond's cold cream, Stokely canned goods, Revlon, Maybelline, First National Citibank, Chevrolet and Cadillac.

"There were more than 100 weekly scheduled flights between Miami and Havana-and this predates the rise in the Miami Cuban population. These products still have brand equity. We know that from recent arrivals."

IAC would open a Havana office "in a heartbeat" if the trade restrictions were lifted, she said.

"It's truly an exciting time," said Ms. Fernandez Haar, who has prepared contingency plans under various scenarios for four undisclosed clients if the Cuban market were to open. "Here we have a consumer market of 11 million that is a 32-minute flight away with 30 years of pent-up demand. Is that not exciting?"

But it's also a trying time, she said. Many Cuban-Americans, like Ms. Fernandez Haar, have family in Cuba. She worries about their safety as the political situation grows unstable and about their well-being since she's not allowed to send money.

Procter & Gamble Co., United Airlines, American Airlines, Norwegian Cruise Line and Sprint are just a few of the marketers interested in serving a free Cuban market.

"We've been watching the Cuban situation closely as it has unfolded," a P&G spokesman said. "Hopefully, it is only a matter of time before the reinstatement of free enterprise in that country. While we can't predict the future, if the political situation changes there and the U.S. government gives American business an OK to proceed, we certainly would consider re-entering the market."

"A substantial number" of major U.S. marketers subscribe to Knight-Ridder's Cuba News, a monthly economics newsletter "to prepare people for when the Cuba market opens up," said General Manager Guillermo Cueto, who would only say his subscribers number "in the high several hundreds."

"It's a matter of when, not if," he said.

Travel between the U.S. and Cuba is expected to boom if direct travel restrictions are lifted. (Now, only academics, journalists and Cuban-born citizens can travel there from the U.S., but neighboring islands offer day trips, which are popular.)

United Airlines acquired defunct Pan Am Corp.'s rights to fly between Miami and Havana if the restrictions are lifted. American Airlines, which has a hub in Miami and sizable Caribbean, South and Central American operations, is also interested.

American expects business travel and friends-and-family visits would develop first in a democratic Cuba, followed by the tourist trade once the infrastructure was put in place, said a spokesman in Fort Worth, Texas.

"Travel would be an instant boom," said Lori Bart-lett, manager-tour product development for Carlson Wagonlit Travel, Minneapolis, one of the nation's largest travel agencies. "Restaurants, hotels, airlines, cruise lines and tour operators all will be lining up to get in and do business.

"Cuba is supposed to be one of the lushest of the Caribbean islands," she added. "In the '50s, Cuba was a very chichi place to go and very popular among the Hollywood crowd and jet-setters."

"We think Cuba has tremendous potential as a destination ...," said Fran Sevcik, public relations director for Norwegian Cruise Line, Miami. "No one can predict when it will happen, but we think Cuba will be a port of call. The whole cruise industry is watching."

The Univision and Telemundo Spanish-language networks see Cuba as a way to expand their reach to another 11 million predominantly Spanish-speaking people-almost half the size of the U.S.' 25 million Hispanic population. If allowed, Univision and Telemundo would consider opening stations in Cuba or beaming programming by satellite.

"We are interested in reaching Hispanics throughout the Americas," said Carlos Barba, president of Univision Television Group.

If Cuba lifts emigration restrictions, an influx of Cuban refugees would benefit U.S. Spanish-language media and agencies, especially in south Florida, with its more than 1 million Hispanic population.

The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce estimates the Hispanic and Cuban-American population already contributes $10 billion to the area's economy. A democratic Cuba could bring another 100,000 to 200,000 people to the area, while only a few would return to their native country.

"The [1980] Mariel [boat lift] folks have been absorbed here," said Sandy Gonzalez, the chamber's senior VP-economic development.

The "impact could be a pretty good boost to south Florida," said Joe Zubizarreta, VP-account services at Miami's Zubi Advertising Services, a $14 million shop that would also set up an office in Cuba if the market opened.

Sprint has TV and print advertising aimed at the south Florida market ready to go if it's allowed to provide direct calls between the U.S. and Cuba, said Jim Dodd, assistant VP-international marketing for consumer services.

(Sprint has negotiated an agreement with Cuba, but the U.S. government didn't approve it because of surcharges demanded by Cuba.)

The lifting of that restriction alone would be worth "tens of millions of dollars," to long-distance carriers, Mr. Dodd said. Sosa, Bromley, Aguilar & Associates, San Antonio, Texas, handles Spanish-language efforts.

But the political situation could also unfold adversely. Violence in Cuba would keep marketers away. A repeat of the Mariel boat lift could cause a backlash against immigration and possibly hurt Hispanic marketing efforts in the U.S.

Others believe capitalism will sprout more slowly.

"The amount of rebuilding that would need to be done on Cuba will take years and years before companies can market," said Cuban-born Mr. Zubizarreta, whose shop has advised on Cuba plans with clients including Ryder Transportation Resources, Norwegian Cruise Line, Pizza Hut and Pepsi-Cola Bottlers of Miami. "There is no running water," he contended, "no gasoline, no sewer system, no energy source. They'll have to take care of the basic concept of survival before they can think about pizza and Pepsi."

Jeffery D. Zbar contributed to this story.

In this article:
Most Popular