Corporate Executive Protection in Cuba

It seems you can’t open a newspaper recently without reading something about Cuba.

U.S. airlines are planning regular flights. Hollywood is scouting film locations. In a few weeks, Barack Obama will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge, who famously declined a drink there at the height of prohibition during the Pan American Conference of 1928.

And speaking of rum and palm trees, Keith Richards and the rest of the Rolling Stones just announced their first-ever Cuban gig: a free, open-air concert slated for March 25th in Havana.

Destination Cuba is a very real thing, and here at AS Solution we believe this is only the beginning. What is now a trickle could well turn into a torrent over the next 6-12 months as U.S.-Cuban relations continue to thaw. We’ve already taken the first few trips this year, and we predict many more as business opportunities grow apace with the shifting political winds.

In this blog, we’d like to share some tips about executive protection and staying safe in Cuba,  a new travel destination for Americans. But first a little background.

The U.S. – Cuban thaw

The U.S. and Cuban governments began the first tepid steps of thawing relations at the end of 2014 after 54 years of cold-war chill. Although the U.S. trade embargo is still in place (and can only be ended by and act of Congress), executive action by the Obama administration has relaxed import/export restrictions and have led the way to normalizing relations.

The first regular charter flights between the U.S. and Havana started about a year ago, and both countries upgraded their “interest sections” into embassies in DC and Havana in July, 2015.

U.S. citizens are now free to visit Cuba for purposes of business or cultural exchange only. Unlike Canadians and Europeans, who have flocked to the Caribbean island as tourists since the 1990s, Americans are still not free to travel to Cuba for recreational purposes. However, this too will surely change soon.

An emerging, emerging market?

The complete removal of U.S. travel restrictions will likely result in a new tourism boom, significantly increasing the number of holidaymakers from the current 3 million per year.

Other forms of U.S. economic engagement are likewise set to surge.                                       

Located just 90 miles (145 km) south of Key West, Florida, Cuba has a population of over 11 million, a relatively skilled labor force, low wages, abundant natural resources – and  a tremendous amount of room for economic growth after half a century of communist control.

Foreign investment worth billions is expected in a range of sectors including energy, tourism,  pharmaceuticals, technology, agriculture and food processing.  But that will all depend on how and when the Cuban government further eases the reins on its tightly planned economy, balances  the current Chinese involvement, and continues steps to encourage Western investment.

Executive protection in Cuba:  There are crime and health issues…

Although the government does not release official crime statistics, Cuba is considered a relatively safe place to visit compared to many other places in Latin America and the Caribbean. Social control is high; police are plentiful and keep a special eye on foreigners who bring in billions of dollars of much-needed foreign exchange.

Opportunistic crimes such as pickpocketing and petty theft do occur in tourist areas, albeit at rates much lower than elsewhere. Currency exchange scams are a hassle, and are best avoided by using official exchange booths rather than people you meet on the street.

While there are few serious health risks in Cuba, contaminated food is a possibility and vaccinations against typhoid and hepatitis A are often recommended.

We would advise pregnant women to keep a close eye on the Zika virus situation. Until only recently Cuba was one of the few countries in the region without any reported cases. This changed when a Venezuelan woman was diagnosed, presumably after having been infected in Venezuela, not Cuba. The Cuban government has launched a number of initiatives to combat the virus, including screening at airports and cruise ship terminals and the assignment of 9,000 soldiers armed with bug spray.

…but traffic accidents are actually the biggest risk.

Like many other countries where we work, the single most dangerous activity for foreign visitors to Cuba is travel by motor vehicle. As the number of cars has increased over the last few years, incidents involving motor vehicles are now the leading cause of accidental death in the country.

If that statistic isn’t enough to make foreigners think twice about how they travel in-country, they should also consider a few more things:

  • Drivers involved in traffic accidents risk up to 10 years in prison if they are considered guilty of causing death or serious harm.
  • Rental car drivers are not allowed to leave the country until all claims are settled after an accident in which they were involved. Even if the driver is a foreigner who requires medical attention best delivered in his or her home country.
  • Although main roads in major urban areas are usually in decent shape, secondary roads are often not. Potholes abound, signage is poor, and anything and everything in addition to cars frequent the roads.
  • Driving in rural areas is demands extreme attentiveness at all times, and is not recommended at night, period. Pedestrians, bikes, mopeds, horse carts and tractors might all appear suddenly on the road – as does livestock. Roads are poorly lit, and neither bikes, mopeds or old cars can be counted on to have suitable lights or reflectors.

We highly recommend that our corporate clients use specially trained security drivers and vetted vehicles in Cuba.

You can’t always get what you want. Forward thinking helps you get what you need.

On my recent trip to the island I heard a story that tells a lot about travel in Cuba.

The Rolling Stones’ crew were there on an advance trip to arrange for their upcoming concert. While they were planning the massive logistics setup, the minor issue of electrical tape came up and led to the question: Where could they buy enough tape locally? The answer was… nowhere. Electrical tape is in short supply. The scarcity of electrical tape highlights the need to plan ahead because you literally  “can’t always get what you want!”

“Patience pills” are another thing you might want to pack extra before your Cuban trip, as they can come in handy when dealing with planning and logistics of all kinds. Infrastructure can be spotty; facilities and equipment can be difficult if not impossible to find. Executive protection professionals need to plan ahead and be as resourceful as ever.

Although the country has sent thousands of health workers abroad since the 1960s, for example, many medicines and medical equipment are simply not available domestically. We therefore recommend that our clients always bring more than enough of their own meds, and we pack our own first-aid kits complete with AEDs.

Accommodations are a similar story. Because of a dearth of suitable hotel rooms, large groups must always plan early and might do well to consider using cruise ships/yachts or Airbnb.

You can’t always get the vehicle you want, either. Yes, there are modern cars and multi-passenger vans available in addition to the picturesque American beauties from the 1950s. But not in the quality or numbers we are accustomed to in other countries.

When all is said and done, and despite the many challenges, we encourage clients and friends to enjoy the new possibilities to visit Cuba. The rebirth of a country and society that in many ways froze in 1959 is an exciting thing to witness, and opportunities abound.  But as is the case for everywhere else we work, we also encourage you to apply some forward thinking and to work closely with a specialist partner: These are also the keys to success in Cuba!