If Cuba embargo ended, U.S. businesses ready, but not island

MIAMI -- At first glance, Cuba's business potential looks as pretty as its postcards: A nearly five-decades-long embargo has made the island just 90 miles from Florida's coast hungry for nearly every good and service a U.S. company might provide.

But the flip side tells a different story about the most populous country in the Caribbean: that of a cash-strapped state with crumbling infrastructure and an economy in the stranglehold of an authoritarian government.

Those conflicting realities, however, are not stopping entrepreneurs from planning for the day when the embargo is lifted -- or from taking advantage of business opportunities already permissible under the embargo.

Tourism and telecom firms have been energized by recent regulations promising greater access; port operators and oil drillers are gearing up for a rush; and lawyers and consultants are lining up for a piece of the action.

"Every sector is going to be important," said Richard Waltzer, the chairman of the Havana Group, a consulting firm that helps U.S. businesses lay the groundwork for the day sanctions are lifted. "This is an island that really hasn't developed."

But in the short term, Waltzer said, the "building of hotels and tourism infrastructure is going to be the new economy for Cuba."

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