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Buy American ... in an unlikely spot

Despite the Cuban embargo, products from U.S. companies find their way onto shelves and into homes on the Communist island.

Published May 17, 2007


HAVANA - The golden arches are nowhere to be found. There's not a single Starbucks or Wal-Mart, and no way to buy a Budweiser, a Corvette or a Dell.

But even in Cuba, you can get a Coke.

Despite the U.S. Trading With the Enemy Act, which governs Washington's 45-year-old embargo, sales on Fidel Castro's island are lining the pockets of corporate America.

Nikes, Colgate and Marlboros, Gillette Series shaving cream and Jordache jeans - all are easy to find. Cubans who wear contact lenses can buy Bausch & Lomb. Parents can surprise the kids with a Mickey Mouse fire truck.

Dozens of American brands are on sale here - and not in some black-market back alley. They're in the lobbies of gleaming government-run hotels and in crowded supermarkets and pharmacies that answer to the communist government.

The companies say they have no direct knowledge of sales in Cuba, and that the amounts involved are small and would be impractical to stop. But it's hard to deny that a portion of the transactions wind up back in the United States.

"We try and do what we can to police ... but in a globalized economy, it's impossible to catch everything, " said Vada Manager, director of global issues management for Nike Inc.

Trade sanctions bar American tourists from visiting Cuba and allow exports only of U.S. food and farm products, medical supplies and some telecommunications equipment. But wholesalers and distributors in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Canada routinely sell some of America's most recognizable brands to Cuban importers.

Last month, Economy Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez said 57 percent of the population has access to hard currency - dollars or convertible pesos - either through jobs in tourism or money from relatives abroad. A 2004 report by the U.S. Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba estimated remittances from the United States alone total $1-billion a year.

John Kavulich, senior policy adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council Inc. in New York, said "in no way should it be said that this is an end run by U.S. business around U.S. restrictions, because it's not."

U.S. brands in Cuba

Mickey Mouse Fire Truck battery-operated toy

Where: Galeria Comercial, Comodoro Hotel, Havana

How much: 5.15 Cuban Convertible Pesos ($5.55)

Made in: China

Also available: Mickey Mouse plastic mirrors and combs; wrapping paper with various Disney characters

U.S. corporate: Disney Consumer Products, part of the Walt Disney Co., Burbank, Calif.

And ... Fire trucks appear to have been shipped directly from China.

Nike Air Force I sneakers

Where: Manzana Gomez shopping center, off Havana's Central Park

How much: 129.40 Cuban Convertible Pesos ($140)

Made in: China

U.S. corporate: Nike Inc., Beaverton, Ore.

And ... "Come back after the weekend and we'll have more, " a salesman said.

Bausch & Lomb ReNu Plus "No Rub" Multi-use Solution for soft contact lens

Where: El Almendares Optician, along Obispo Boulevard on the fringe of Old Havana

How much: 120-mililiter bottle for 15.50 Cuban Convertible Pesos ($16.75).

Made in: United States

U.S. corporate: Bausch & Lomb Inc., Rochester, N.Y.

And ... Samples of some solutions that read "fee" on the side, but sell for 12.25 CUC ($13.25).

[Last modified May 17, 2007, 01:52:49]

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