AT&T, Starwood, Marriott Poised to Ink Cuba Deals

Business LeadersDow Jones Newswires

Three major U.S. corporations are preparing to complete deals to do business in Cuba as an approving President Barack Obama gets ready for a historic presidential trip to the island later this month.  With just over a week until Mr. Obama's March 20 visit, at least three companies—AT&T Inc., Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Inc. and Marriott International—are expected to announce agreements with Cuban government-run entities, according to company and U.S. officials.  They will be among the high-profile first deals notched since Mr. Obama said in December 2014 that the U.S. would move to restore ties with Cuba after more than 50 years of Cold War enmity. Since then, the Obama administration has loosened travel and trade restrictions for a variety of industries, betting that closer business ties between the U.S. and Cuba will cement the administration's policy of normalization.  White House officials expressed hope some of these deals would come together before Mr. Obama arrives in Havana March 20 to showcase the value of closer ties, but the timing is still uncertain and some could be announced after the presidential visit.  Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson, vice chair of the President's Export Council, will travel to Cuba with Mr. Obama.  While final approvals from Cuba for business ventures often take time, companies also must obtain clearance from U.S. agencies, since many commercial transactions are restricted or prohibited under the long-standing U.S. embargo.  "We are optimistic that we are going to get a green light soon from the U.S. government to have hotels under the Marriott flag in Cuba," said Thomas Marder, a Marriott spokesman.  Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker will also accompany Mr. Obama, as well as the export council's chair, Ursula Burns, chairman and CEO of Xerox Corp.  Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Small Business Administration head Maria Contreras-Sweet and Secretary of State John Kerry also are among cabinet members going on the trip.  Starwood, which is soon to be acquired by Marriott, is also expected to make an announcement, according to U.S. officials and other people familiar with the matter.  "We see many opportunities for the expansion of our brands into Cuba at this inflection point, and look forward to building long-term relationships and welcoming travelers into our hotels in this dynamic market," said Carrie Bloom, a Starwood spokeswoman, adding the firm is awaiting Treasury Department approval.  AT&T is expected soon to complete a roaming agreement with Cuba's state-run telecommunications company ETECSA, U.S. officials said. A person familiar with the negotiations said ETECSA and AT&T haven't yet reached an agreement. AT&T declined to comment.  The White House has also been in touch with Major League Baseball and several cruise lines about completing agreements while Mr. Obama is in Havana. Mr. Obama is scheduled to attend an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team on March 22.  His attendance there will come amid discussions among the U.S., Cuba and MLB about allowing Cuban players to come to the U.S. to play legally in the U.S. The trade embargo against Cuba, which blocks most U.S.-Cuban business, also covers baseball contracts.  In September, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control granted a general license to cruise lines that want to call in Cuba, but Cuban officials haven't yet approved proposals from Carnival Corp., Norwegian Cruise Line and several other U.S.-based cruise lines, which had been granted specific licenses and submitted proposals before that regulation change. U.S. officials said they are hoping the Cuban government will grant those approvals while Mr. Obama is visiting.  The deals will accompany the Obama administration's likely announcement before the visit of additional steps to loosen the trade and travel embargoes. The details of those are still being worked out, but are likely to include allowing individual licenses for people-to-people travel and loosening restrictions on the use of U.S. dollars in transactions with Cuba, among other changes, according to people familiar with the discussions. If the new people-to-people regulation is enacted, solo American travelers could legally justify a visit to Cuba simply by interacting with Cubans or touring a museum while there.  The White House believes that expanding economic and commercial ties with Cuba will precipitate changes in democracy and governance on the island. Administration officials see business deals as hard to undo once they are in place, so they will go furthest toward making the president's opening to Cuba a permanent feature of U.S. foreign policy.  Despite enthusiasm among U.S. companies to do business in Cuba, few have announced deals. Airbnb Inc. launched there last year and Sprint Corp. and Verizon Wireless currently offer roaming service on the island.  Showtime's "House of Lies" shot an episode there and Universal Pictures' "Fast and Furious 8" is expected to film there this year. The American DJ and music producer Diplo and his electronic group Major Lazer recently hosted a concert attended by as many as 400,000 people.  Write to Felicia Schwartz at and Carol E. Lee at

Continue Reading Below