By Michael E. Miller
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Hardly a week goes by in South Florida without a new dot-com opening an office, tossing up a splashy billboard, and then issuing a hyperbolic press release on the riches that lie ahead in Latin America. April's NASDAQ crash appears to have done little to dim the fervor of local e-commerce's true believers. Latin America is the promised land and Miami its gateway.
That Pollyanna spirit was on full display at the July 11 First Tuesday meeting, one of Miami's premiere venues for Internet workers busy networking. Early that evening 600 fresh-faced movers and shakers crammed into Level, the South Beach nightclub, to hear a panel of local dot-com execs wax poetic on the glorious future of online marketing. Panelist Maria Cormane, director of Latin-American media services for Real Media, crowed that her company was moving beyond operations among the usual suspects of Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina. Real Media was now turning its investment eye to the lucrative terrain of El Salvador and Colombia.
Obviously if El Salvador, a nation which until only recently counted gastrointestinal infection as its leading natural cause of death, and Colombia, corporate kidnapping capital of the world, are ripe for Internet development, then allMiami's conventional business wisdom needs to be rethought.
So Kulchur stepped up and earnestly asked of the panel: "What is the outlook for e-commerce in Cuba?" Pandemonium immediately ensued, the noisy murmuring and nervous laughter broken only by Cormane angrily bellowing into her microphone: “Whyare you asking this question?” The reply that Cuba certainly seemed to be an untapped market (especially compared to war-wracked Colombia) did little to ease the aggrieved look on Cormane's face. Staring back at Kulchur she stammered, “Who are you?”
Other audience members had a less pained response to the notion of bringing the Net to Cuba. During the cocktail-fueled schmooze session that followed the panel discussion, several attendees approached Kulchur with tales of their company's designs on the forbidden isle. One gleefully related that though his European-headquartered firm had only just announced plans to open a Havana field office in 2001, the waiting list of employees seeking to transfer there was already longer than for any other destination around the globe.
At least one Internet entrepreneur isn't waiting until next year. Stephen Marshall has the proverbial office with a view. From his desk the 32-year-old Briton gazes out over his laptop through sliding-glass patio doors to take in Havana's Marina Hemingway and the rows of gleaming yachts moored in the sparkling blue water, many flying American flags.
“I don't see post-, free, or any kind of political angle when I choose to work somewhere,” Marshall explains, describing a career trajectory that has taken him from France in the late Eighties to Russia in 1992 and finally to Cuba in May 1995. “If I see opportunities and I think those opportunities are worth capitalizing upon, then I'll make a move. It has nothing to do with political thoughts.”
Marshall's First Investments International has its fingers in several pies, but its primary concern now is the Internet. He operates no less than 34 different Cuba-themed Websites, including CubaSports.com, CineCubano.com (the official site for ICAIC, the country's film institute), as well as the (still-under-construction) official site for the Latin-American Film Festival, a star-studded, trés hip annual event that has become the Southern Cone's answer to Cannes, with Fidel mixing it up alongside Hollywood figures at postscreening parties.
The most active site among Marshall's Internet menagerie is GoCuba.com, an online travel agency that is seeking to corral a chunk of the 1.6 million foreign tourists who visited Cuba last year, including more than 150,000 from the United States. He claims GoCuba.com grossed more than $120,000 in bookings for May 2000 alone, a figure he expects to explode once U.S. travel restrictions and the trade embargo are lifted, developments he sees as both inevitable and imminent. When that happens he envisions a flood of Cuba-bound American tourists. Traditional travel agencies will be still be scrambling while GoCuba.com cashes in.
“Just by looking out the window at the palm trees, it's obvious that this is a desirable place to come on holiday,” Marshall says in his graceful British accent. Motioning to the marina's waters just behind Kulchur, he continues, “There is also a convenient angle to it. Ninety miles from [Cuba's] shore is the largest amount of foreign investment capital in the world. There's an immense number of highly educated, very intelligent individuals here who could easily lend a hand to high-tech ventures. Look at postwar Germany and Japan. They received financing from the same people who were dropping bombs on them. With all these things considered, if you're an entrepreneur, then there's absolutely no reason you wouldn't bet on this type of country.”
That kind of thinking infuriates many in Miami's Cuban-exile community, who accuse people like Marshall of pumping economic life into a moribund Castro regime, a regime they believe would otherwise collapse. "Yeah, I get a few e-mails from Miami," he remarks dryly. “'Why are you assisting the government? Aren't you ashamed of yourself?' Typical stuff.” So ishe ashamed of himself? How does he reply to those critiques?