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Businesses Buzz With Anticipation In Wake Of U.S.-Cuba Thaw


Nothing has happened yet. The economic embargo is still solidly in place, but the president's executive action, opening relations with Cuba, has set of a frenzy of speculation about a new era of U.S.-Cuba commerce. NPR's John Burnett reports about the closest American city - Key West, Florida.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Ninety nautical miles due south lies Cuba, which exerts a gravitational pull on this tiny Caribbean-American city, historically, culturally and now, they hope, economically.

ROBIN SMITH-MARTIN: I'm Robin Smith-Martin. I work with Stock Island Marina in Key West. We're the closest marina to Cuba.

BURNETT: Smith-Martin, while not Cuban, has solid Key West cred. He says his mother helped start Jimmy buffet's "Margaritaville," and his father was a marijuana smuggler. He expects big things if relations between Key West and Cuba open up and eventually tourism is permitted.

SMITH-MARTIN: Demand for yachters to travel from South Florida, from Southwest Florida and to stop off here at Stock Island to refuel, re-provision, get repairs, before making their first trip to Havana, is exciting for all of us here at Stock Island Marina Village.

BURNETT: Historic Key West, famed for its fishermen, revolutionaries and bohemians is positioning itself as cultural and tourist bridge to Havana. There's even a slogan ready to go - two nations, one vacation. Nance Frank, an Island native who owns an art gallery in town, has already been active pioneering cultural exchanges with Cuban artists.

NANCE FRANK: People who like history and culture love Key West and love Havana. So I can just see those kinds of visitors coming back and forth.

BURNETT: The big players, of course, are expected to make the big deals. Companies that sell construction equipment, tractors, home-improvement supplies, as well as telecommunications giants and hotel chains. Rafael Penalver, a Miami attorney whose parents fled the Castro regime in 1961, says that the companies lining up to expand in Cuba should all be ashamed of themselves. He's president of the San Carlos Institute, a museum and educational center located in Key West's Old Town that was the cradle of Cuba's independence movement from Spain.

RAFAEL PENALVER: An open Cuba for business is not a free Cuba. They're very, very different concepts, open for a few to exploit to make money and keep the Castros in power.

BURNETT: Yet, in the days since the president's surprise announcement on Cuba, the talk here in Key West has been about anything but continuing the half-century-old embargo. It's been about - when can we buy a ticket?

So if the country of Cuba finally opens up, what would it mean for the Key West Airport?

PETER HORTON: Keep in mind that it is not open at this time. But if it does, it means that we could resume regularly scheduled commercial flights from Key West to Cuba. The last one we had, I believe, was 1960.

BURNETT: Airport manager Peter Horton said the first commercial charter flight left Key West international Airport and flew the 114 miles to Jose Marti International Airport only last year. Like the marina is for boats, this airport would be the closest U.S. landing strip to Cuba for general aviation. Through the years, Horton says, they've remodeled their customs facility in expectation for the elusive news.

HORTON: I have been here at this airport since 1988, and I can hardly count on one hand the times when somebody, in an official capacity, has said - get ready, Cuba is going to open.

BURNETT: Maybe, just maybe, that day is closer than ever. John Burnett, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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