John Parke Wright, with close ties to the Castro brothers, says Cuba is starting to open up economically.
By Matthew Clark

John Parke Wright wants to provide Florida's best restaurants with the finest steaks around, and he wants to do it from a ranch in Cuba.

"I've got a plan," says the sixth-generation Floridan whose ancestors were pioneers of the once-thriving Havana-Tampa trade route. "I'm ready to go."

Cuba, on the other hand, is not quite ready for him. But could it be soon?

Mr. Wright, a rancher, is one of many longtime Cuba watchers who agree that Raúl Castro is following the "China model" of managed movement toward a free market economy.

He would know.

He visits Cuba frequently, finessing close ties with the Castro government in order to push for any small trade openings between the island nation and the US. He was also one of the first businessmen to open up trade with China 30 years ago when Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping began his famous economic reforms to that country's communist economy. At the time, reformers surrounding Mr. Deng wanted China to be "a little more like [capitalist] Hong Kong and not Hong Kong to become more like China," Wright says.

Wright compares Raúl to the practical Deng, saying Raúl wants to have Cuba be a little more like Florida. "Raúl's goal is to modernize and to normalize trade relations with the US. If we normalize relations now, it'll be a whole new world. Havana will be the Hong Kong of the Caribbean.

"From 1860 to 1960, Cuba had some of the best land for cattle in the Western hemisphere," says Wright. In 1960, Cuba had about 6 million people and 2 million cattle, but now has only 2 million cattle for 12 million people, he explains.

"There's a tremendous need to restock Cuba's ranches, and the opportunity has to be given to people like me," he says, adding that he'd start out by sending 3,000 head of cattle, tractors, trucks, and irrigation equipment to Cuba as soon as the two nations adjust their policies to allow for that.

Wright says he's "very enthused" by what he calls "a new business spirit" in Cuba, but adds that "the [US trade embargo] has created a situation in Cuba where an entire generation thinks we're out to starve them. If we open up trade and travel, it'll change attitudes left, right, and center in Havana."

"It'll take a whole new administration with a whole new attitude," he says. "The ball is clearly in the US court."

"There are too many politicians in the decision making process – on both sides – and not enough statesmen," he says. "The question is: Who will take the high road and normalize relations?"