Investing in Cuba: New fund starts raising capital

In the wake of President Barack Obama's decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba, the man behind the ticker symbol CUBA is starting another venture tied to the Caribbean island. Thomas Herzfeld, manager of the closed-end Herzfeld Caribbean Basin Fund, is now raising money for a private equity fund geared toward direct investment in the country.

A privately owned party supply store in Havana, Cuba.
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A privately owned party supply store in Havana, Cuba.

In an interview with Knowledge at Wharton and CNBC, Herzfeld said he expects initial investments in the fund to run between $10 million and $20 million each. That's small when it comes to the world of private equity, but huge when it comes to Cuba.

Sectors where the money is likely to go would include tourism, construction, marine transport, telecom and hospitality among others. "Particularly building materials," said Herzfeld.

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Herzfeld wouldn't say the rate of return he's promising investors, but he acknowledged that the risks of investing in Cuba mean that he and his investors will want a much higher rate of return to compensate for the uncertainties.

"We welcome the risk, we want the risk," he said.

Since the changes in Cuba policy made by President Obama, it's become much easier to invest in small businesses run by individuals in the island nation. However, it's still illegal to do deals with the Cuban government unless the contracts involve food, medicine or telecom and Internet equipment.

"Back-and-forth commerce (that) aggregates between Florida and Cuba will be a major industry," Herzfeld said. "Tourism certainly. There is a tremendous shortage of hotel rooms in Cuba, which will lead you to look at the cruise lines, because they actually have the most hotel rooms available that could be put into use immediately. And agriculture is something we could invest in now. Food's exempt from the embargo."

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Cuba is still a communist country—one of the few remaining in the world. As such, its government controls nearly 100 percent of the island's businesses and trade. Recently, however, the country has begun permitting individuals to start small businesses such as restaurants, barbershops and clothing stores.

Herzfeld will be one of the presenters at the "The Cuban Opportunity Summit" hosted by Wharton on April 1 at the Nasdaq market site. CNBC is the official broadcaster.