Greenberg on Cuba
On a visit to Moscow in 1964, Hank Greenberg noticed a picture of a Havana office building on the desk of an official with the Soviet insurance company Ingosstrakh.
“That looks like the building where my company housed its insurance operations,” Greenberg — who was in Moscow seeking a travel risk reinsurance deal — told the official.
The C.V. Starr Companies had an office in Havana – pictured above – between 1943 and 1958.
“That may be,” the Soviet official replied. “Now it is the building where Ingosstrakh houses the Soviet Union’s Cuban operations,” he added.
“Please take care of that building,” Greenberg told the official. “We will get it back … soon.”
More than 50 years after Greenberg made that bold statement, as recounted in his 2013 book “The AIG Story,” the day that Starr Companies takes possession of its former property in Havana is not yet here.
“Change must come about, but how fast? I can’t answer that.” – Hank Greenberg, CEO and Chairman of the Starr Companies.
With the recent easing of travel restrictions to Cuba by the U.S. government, however, Starr Companies’ executives are checking on the condition and ownership of the building just the same.
Untangling the history of that Havana building is just one of the opportunities that are on the minds of business people in the United States since travel restrictions to Cuba were eased in January.
Greenberg expresses the hope that his company can one day re-open an insurance operation in Havana. At the same time, Greenberg said that there is much work yet to be done, on the part of both the public and the private sector, before anything like that can happen.
“Both governments have got to agree on the speed by which normalization would come into being,” Greenberg said.
Since the restrictions were eased, Greenberg reports that the Starr Companies’ travel services subsidiary Assist-Card International Holdings, which it acquired in 2011, is already seeing an uptick in inquiries from businesspeople interested in its travel protection services in Cuba.
“From what we can discern, there is a great deal of interest and a pent-up need to travel,” Greenberg said.
The hotel and restaurant business, agriculture and travel-related industries like cruise shipping and aviation are just a few of the industries that will see opportunities in nearby Cuba as relationships between that country and the United States open up.
There will also be an intense interest, Greenberg said, for people of Cuban descent who are United States citizens eager to visit their origin country.
However, more evolution in government relations must occur before many of those dreams can become a reality.
“Change must come about, but how fast? I can’t answer that,” Greenberg said.
One thing Greenberg is certain of. Free trade is the quickest route to building lasting bonds between the United States and Cuba.
“I think that where trade increases between countries generally you see change in attitudes and building better trust between countries. You learn from each other, it’s a faster way to normalize relations than anything I can think of,” Greenberg said.
Greenberg stressed that Assist-Card International isn’t the only U.S.-based insurance company or subsidiary in the travel risk business.
The Starr chairman indicated though that he expects his company to be a strong competitor.
“The challenges of doing business in Cuba are substantial,” Greenberg said.
“But Starr is well-positioned and prepared to leverage our relationships and global network to support our clients’ entry into this market.”