Houston Business Journal
By: Joe Martin
Felix Chevalier grew up with a mother who forced him to eat everything on his plate at every meal. Originally, he thought his mom was just being a strict parent, but it wasn’t until he first visited her home country of Cuba in 1992 that it became clear why she asked him to clean his plate.
“On the very first day, I’m standing outside, and across the street there’s a line of people and a lady standing at the front of the line with a satchel. I asked our tour guide, ‘What’s going on?’ He explained to me they were receiving their rations of rice,” Chevalier said. “It hit me.”
The son of two Cuban immigrants, Chevalier has been in Houston since 1997 after growing up in New York City. A lawyer now for a self-named practice, Chevalier specializes in government affairs, law and litigation, as well as business law. Following a Greater Houston Partnership-sponsored trip to Cuba around four years ago, Chevalier recognized that his specialty in business and public sector litigation, as well as his heritage, put him in an unique position.
“(When President Barack Obama announced he was normalizing relations with Cuba,) I started getting phone calls from clients, mostly out of curiosity, asking what it would take to do business in Cuba,” he said. “Many came from large clients, so I started talking with folks who I thought could help me get more information.”
Those people include representatives from the state of Texas’ economic development office, the Houston mayor’s trade office and Engage Cuba, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit geared to lobby Congress on opening relations with Cuba. Additionally, Chevalier has met with the Cuban ambassador to the U.S., José Cabañas, to better understand trade between the two countries and plans to visit Cuba in the near-term to lay groundwork for potential clients, Chevalier said.
And with major U.S. carriers, including United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, receiving approval to fly to Havana and other Cuban destinations, the idea of an open-for-business Cuba seems closer to a reality.
But while the U.S. tourism industry is eager to sink its teeth into a previously unattainable market, there’s plenty of opportunity for a Cuban business to prosper, as well, Chevalier said. Chevalier referenced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo visiting Cuba in April 2015 to increase trade between the two countries, including a deal for a U.S. clinical trial for lung cancer and a software trade deal.
“This is not only an opportunity for Americans to do business in Cuba, but for Cubans to do business in America,” Chevalier said.
However, before any of this can happen, restrictions on trade and tourism still need to be lifted by the U.S. Congress.
Ultimately, though, while business relationships will develop and companies anticipate new market opportunities, Cuba represents an exciting time for families like the Chevaliers and many others in the U.S.
“While my mother and many in her generation are still understandably struggling with this new relationship, she realizes the financial benefits for her siblings and their children who all still live in Havana or Guantanamo,” Chevalier said. “For me, I’m living proof that access can change lives.”