This month, the online travel service Airbnb started offering more than 1,000 properties for rent in Cuba. That may be helpful to U.S. attorneys, many of whom are traveling to Havana lately.
“We went down to Havana in late February and have soft plans to return in May, if not April,” said Andy Fernandez, a Holland & Knight partner in Miami who leads the Cuba Action Team at his firm.
Fernandez said that President Obama’s announcement in December that U.S. will normalize relations and ease economic sanctions against Cuba has created opportunities for companies although there are still obstacles to investing there.
For instance, most U.S. banks won’t process credit or debit card transactions in Cuba because the rules remain too onerous: the cardholder needs to have an authorized reason to be in Cuba and verifying such details is difficult. In short, the cost of compliance is high, according to Fernandez. He spoke to Big Law Business about a recent trip to Havana, the role of lawyers in Cuban society and how the recent changes have affected his practice.
The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Big Law Business: What is the Cuba Action Team and what have you been doing?
Fernandez: We as a firm are in a unique position to advise clients on Cuba. We actually have a unique team because we have an attorney who’s a Cuban-born, Cuban-educated lawyer who come over here in 2004 and reestablished herself as a lawyer here Florida. She and I went to Cuba in late February to meet with Cuban lawyers and law firms and foreign investors who are currently operating there.
Big Law Business: And what happened on your trip?
Fernandez: We went down to Havana in late February and have soft plans to return in May, if not April. We have two clients, one in the financial services arena, and one in the tourism arena, that because of these changes have an opportunity in Cuba. We did this so we could understand how these changes are going to be implemented over there under Cuban law.
Big Law Business: Do you envision forming a strategic alliance with a Cuban firm or opening an office there at some point?
Fernandez: I don’t think we’re going to have anything formal with a law firm there. I don’t think that’s what we’re looking for, or that that’s even permitted. But we’ve had meetings with Cuban lawyers. To open an office in Cuba, that’s not permitted. That’s not even contemplated by the new regulations, so I can’t say when it would ever happen.
Big Law Business: What has the Cuba Action Team been doing?
Fernandez: We’ve been advising clients that are doing business in Cuba and the Caribbean for years. This team has been around since the early 1990s. It gets together and has reenergized itself every time there’s been a change. For the most part, the embargo prohibited any basic financial transactions, but over the years, there were some changes. We have folks in Miami, but also folks in Washington, D.C., and in New York. We have a very large international trade group
We went down to Havana in late February and have soft plans to return in May, if not April. We have two clients, one in the financial services arena, and one in the tourism arena, that because of these changes have an opportunity in Cuba. We’ve only been to Havana. That was where the lawyers were that we wanted to meet.
Big Law Business:Describe the role that lawyers in Cuba play.
Fernandez: They’re advisors, advocates, adversaries -- all the A’s. The play a similar role to lawyers here. There is a legal system and structure in Cuba, and the role is similar to what lawyers here do.