To visit Cuba is literally to experience time travel. Outside the self-contained and sanitized resorts from which few Canadians venture, Cuba is stranded in the 1950s — a vista of decaying towns and cities, large stretches of unused countryside, hammerhead oil wells, clutches of workers at bus stops, crumbling highways, and innumerable classic cars, many belching apocalyptic clouds of exhaust. The only advertisements are revolutionary slogans painted on walls. And everywhere there’s a constant police presence, a none-too-subtle reminder that Cuba remains a repressive state.

If the country has barely progressed since Fidel Castro took over on Jan. 1, 1959, the recent past has hardly been kinder. Thanks to the global recession, external financing for the island has dried up, falling commodity prices have cut into export revenues for key items like nickel, food imports are becoming more costly, and tourism —now a roughly $3-billion-a-year industry — is slowing down.

All this will change, and not just because economic growth will resume. Fidel Castro, 82, and his younger, more pragmatic brother Raul, 77 (who took on the Cuban presidency in 2006 due to Fidel’s illness) are literally on their last legs. Equally, U.S. President Barack Obama’s conciliatory gestures towards the island — backed by more positive U.S. public opinion about the country — signal that the U.S. embargo that has stifled Cuba’s economy for decades may finally be coming to an end. When you ask Cubans about the future, they speak without hesitation of a freer, more entrepreneurial country.

For Canadian companies, Cuba is an enormous business opportunity in the making. Aside from the further potential for tourism development, Cuba literally needs everything — foodstuffs, consumer goods, equipment of every description, and all kinds of infrastructure.

And if U.S. estimates are correct, there’s something like five billion barrels of oil and 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas waiting for exploitation offshore.

But aside from Sherritt International’s well-developed nickel mining, oil and gas and electricity operations, corporate Canada seems largely absent. An estimated 85 Canadian firms operate there, but aside from the likes of Sherritt and Labatt Breweries (actually owned by Belgium’s InBev S.A.) the rest are mid-sized and smaller companies.

The Harper government’s coolness toward Cuba in recent years hasn’t helped either. By contrast, sizable U.S. and European companies are already jockeying for position once the door opens on the new Cuba. It’s an opportunity that Canada cannot afford to miss.

Most Popular From ...