Opening Trade With Cuba Bittersweet for Some

December 23,2014

MIAMI— President Barack Obama's decision to ease restrictions on U.S. trade with Cuba is attracting a lot of attention from the business community, with many companies poised to enter the last communist stronghold in the Americas. Long-time Cuban exiles in Miami say the news is bittersweet, however, for those who had to leave everything behind.

"I remember getting out of school and getting to my house, and there would be a seal on the door," he said.

When Jorge Valdez was eight years old, he and his family left Cuba with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Now all he has left are some old photographs and a lot of memories.

"When I was a kid, my grandfather smoked cigars. We used to sit in the front of the house, and he used to sit in a rocking chair and smoke it, and I’d hold it -- my father and my uncle while they were playing dominoes, which is another part of being Cuban," he said. "It’s something that we do. We play dominoes, smoke cigars and roast pigs. It’s part of being Cuban.”

"One of my favorites is a Don Carlos [cigar brand]," said Valdez.

Today, Valdez owns a successful Miami cigar shop, Sabor Havana, with brands dominated by Cuban families who also fled Cuba and today use other tobacco to make top-brand cigars.

Valdez said people have been smuggling Cuban cigars into the United States for years. But now, large distributors are planning for when the Cuban market opens up, and Valdez is expecting sales to jump.

“I think that when trade opens up with Cuba, and when we do have Cuban cigars to sell here in the United States, there'll be a surge, of course, because it was, or it has been for 50 years, the forbidden fruit, so everyone wants to take a bite of the forbidden fruit,” he said.

Across town in Miami, the stronghold of Cuban-Americans, Andy Consuegra said lifting the trade embargo with Cuba would instantly boost his wine and spirit sales in the Caribbean.

"Overnight it’s about 4 or 5 more million tourists right overnight, plus the increase in tourists that would be expected, should things change or when things change, plus the local population, so another 11, 12 million people,” said Consuegra.

Consuegra said presently, large European companies dominate the market as they do not fall under the U.S. economic embargo.

Businessmen like Consuegra and Valdez look forward to the opportunities that open trade would bring. But for Valdez, it is difficult to forget the past.

"That’s the bitter part. I wish those kinds of things could be erased, but there is so much pain for 50 years that we hold onto that it’s hard to look at the upside of this exchange without there being some benefit to the people that are there," he said.

Valdez said that even if he could, he does not want to return to the communist nation. He said he is content to spend time with his friends and clients in his own little bit of Cuba here in Miami.