'Business is the best bridge to diplomacy'

Israeli business delegation heading to Cuba, with tacit Jerusalem consent

In first, Israel-Latin American Chamber of Commerce is taking companies to Havana in December, to partner directly with the regime and government-owned firms

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

The Cuban interior ministry building with the image of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and the Cuban flag fluttering at half mast at Havana's Revolution square, during Fidel Castro's memorial, on November 28, 2016 in Havana. (AFP Photo/Adalberto Roque)
The Cuban interior ministry building with the image of Ernesto "Che" Guevara and the Cuban flag fluttering at half mast at Havana's Revolution square, during Fidel Castro's memorial, on November 28, 2016 in Havana. (AFP Photo/Adalberto Roque)

The Israeli government has given tacit approval to a delegation of top Israeli businesspeople that is set to travel to Cuba shortly in a bid to promote trade with various government-owned corporations and the regime itself. Jerusalem and Havana do not have diplomatic relations.

The Cuba mission, scheduled for early December, is the first-ever visit to the island nation organized by the Israel-Latin American Chamber of Commerce, a non-governmental organization seeking to advance Israeli business interests on the continent.

CEO Gabriel Hayon told The Times of Israel in an interview earlier this month that he was in touch with the Foreign Ministry about the three-day trip and that it has issued “no objections” to the business delegation going to Cuba.

The Foreign Ministry’s logo was initially placed on a flyer advertising  a “preliminary seminar” to be held next month in Tel Aviv, and the head of the ministry’s Latin America division, Ambassador Yoed Magen, was listed as a speaker.

Yoed Magen (YouTube screenshot)

After The Times of Israel asked the Foreign Ministry if it indeed was officially endorsing the seminar, the ministry’s logo and Magen’s name were removed from the invitation, which is posted on the organization’s website.

“This is a private sector initiative, in which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not involved,” the ministry’s spokesperson, Emmanuel Nahshon, told The Times of Israel, refusing to further elaborate.

The flyer for the Israel Latin-American Chamber of Commerce’s ‘Doing Business with Cuba’ preliminary seminar before the Foreign Ministry logo was removed

Hayon, in a second interview, said he had placed the Foreign Ministry’s logo on the Tel Aviv seminary’s invitation without permission and that he removed it after officials in Jerusalem asked him to do so.

He had initially added the logo to the invite, he said, in order to lend the seminar — for which he is charging participants NIS 75 each — more gravitas. “It was a bit like name-dropping,” he said.

Nonetheless, Ambassador Magen is still expected to participate in the Tel Aviv event, Hayon said. Nahshon said Magen might attend — as a “listener,” not a speaker.

Havana unilaterally cut ties with Jerusalem some 40 years ago and has been a fierce critic of Israeli policies ever since. For decades, Israel was the only country to vote together with the United States against an annual resolution at the United Nations calling for the removal of America’s economic embargo against the island nation.

In 2015, then-US president Barack Obama re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba, but his successor, Donald Trump, vehemently criticized the budding Washington-Havana detente and vowed to undo it.

Private Israeli individuals have long conducted business with Cuba, most notably former minister Rafi Eitan.

Tourists ride on a vintage American car in front of the US embassy in Havana, Cuba, August 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

The Israel-Latin America Chamber of Commerce’s upcoming trip to Cuba seeks to turn the country’s poor economical situation “into an opportunity” for Israeli businesspeople, according to promotional material.

The Cuban chamber of commerce received formal permission from the government in Havana to engage with its Israeli counterpart, Hayon said.

Between 15 and 20 Israeli executives from the fields of agriculture, renewable energy, water, food production, real estate, pharmaceutics and chemicals are expected to join the trip, Hayon said.

“As per the Cubans’ request, we are inviting Israeli companies that are willing to invest or joint venture with the Cuban government (or government-owned firms), under BOT (Build, Operate & Transfer) or PPP (Public-Private Participation) frameworks,” he told The Times of Israel in an email.

The preparatory seminar in Tel Aviv, headlined “Doing Business with Cuba,” is meant to educate the public about the current climate in the country, he explained.

President Barack Obama, left, shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro during their meeting at the Palace of the Revolution, in Havana, Cuba, March 21. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

“Many businessmen contacted us since the historic visit of Obama in Havana [in March 2016], asking for information about the ‘rules of the Game’ in Cuba, how to do business, protection of intellectual property and real-estate ownership. Guides and manuals regarding the establishment of companies, rights and duties are not so clear. So this seminar will answer most of the basic questions,” Hayon said.

Gabriel Hayon (fourth from left) with other speakers and guests at an Israel-Mexico business event in Tel Aviv, November 18, 2015. (Courtesy)

Asked how he felt about US sanctions against Cuba, he replied that his organization is merely “a facilitator of business, not a government agency. Therefore, we are providing the information.”

He added: “We will touch the legal issues, the American embargo and the mitigation of risks while doing business with the Cuban regime. We will certainly advise US citizens and employees of an American holding not to participate in the delegation.”

Hayon also dismissed concerns over promoting business with a country whose leaders routinely and viciously attack Israel at every possible forum.

“Cuba is not listed as an enemy of Israel,” he said. “Business is the best bridge to diplomacy. Israeli firms can provide the Cuban people with many cost-effective solutions to improve the quality of life. Since we are not the government, we are avoiding any political influence on the decision making of businesses.”

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