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Want to invest in Cuba? Learn how to wait

Tuesday, 16 Jul 2013 | 7:00 AM ET
Modern times, technologies of yesteryear
Justin Solomon | CNBC
Modern times, technologies of yesteryear

Spend just five minutes in Cuba, and it's obvious the country would benefit from investment. But a large chunk of that money will have to come from overseas—and it's still not clear when or if the Cuban government will allow it on a meaningful scale.

The buildings, the roads, the power grid, the water system—all need updating after decades of neglect under a socialist regime. After CNBC spent a week in Cuba meeting with the leaders overseeing economic reforms, it's unclear whether authorities are ready to make the changes necessary to become attractive to investors on a large scale.

In a rare appearance before foreign journalists, Vice President Marino Murillo Jorge, the leader in charge of the reform process, said almost begrudgingly, "We will have to live with foreign investment in Cuba, and it will be part of the growth program we are designing."

At the same time, Murillo said Cuba is putting together a "portfolio of investments" in certain sectors that will have a "legal structure that will stimulate investment."

(Read more: Betting on regime change in Cuba)

That last phrase may be a hint that the government is willing to cede control, at least in some cases, in joint ventures with overseas companies.

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Nearly 100 percent of the Cuban economy is government-controlled. But there are a small number of joint ventures with foreign firms. (The government describes them as "mixed companies.") The Cuban government has always insisted in holding at least 51 percent of joint venture shares, even as outside investors put up most of the money and know-how.

Rumors have been circulating for at least that this ownership structure will change, and the vice president's statement raised speculation about its finally happening. Murillo added that the Cuban leadership will make details clear in future meetings.

Vice Minister of Trade and Foreign Investment Antonio Carricarte told reporters that the portfolio of possible investments will likely focus on certain sectors: mining, tourism, renewable energy, food and construction. Additionally, he pointed to the Mariel Port, which Cuba has designated as a special development zone, saying that the government is developing a set of investment norms that foreign firms will find attractive.

Right now, there appears to be very little foreign investment in Cuba. Carricarte told reporters there are 190 foreign companies invested there but declined repeatedly to place a dollar value on the level of the investment.

(Read more: In communist Cuba, the tax man cometh)

Spain's leading hotel chain, Melia, has long had joint ventures with Cuba's government, but many of those properties appear dated. Ivis Fernandez Pena, a representative of the Ministry of Tourism in the beach area of Varadero, told reporters that there had been no new foreign investment in beach hotels in the last five years but noted that a golf project would start in 2014. She declined to identify the co-investor.

Justin Solomon | CNBC

One place where such investment is visible is in the oil and gas industry. Driving toward Varadero, a team from CNBC spotted at least one oil drill bearing Chinese flags. In a meeting with reporters, Deputy Minister of Energy and Mining Arnaldo Batista Fonseca declined to discuss anything about Chinese investment in the energy sector.

When officials do disclose investment numbers, they're small relative to the possibilities. Yuri Camilo Viamontes Lazo is the vice general manager of Energas, a power company that is a joint venture between the Cuban government and Sherritt International of Canada.

Viamontes told reporters that Sherritt had invested more than $400 million since the venture began 16 years ago. Sherritt owns 33 percent of the company. While that may be a lot of money for both Cuba and Sherritt, which has a market cap of $1.15 billion (1.2 billion Canadian dollars), it is far below what the Cuban power sector could use.

As for any kind of large-scale privatizations, investors will have to keep waiting. Murillo told reporters that when it comes to Cuba's GDP, the "socialist state company will have a decisive role, and will continue to be decisive." He said that five years from now, large state enterprises "will continue to be decisive in wealth creation in Cuba."

—By CNBC's Michelle Caruso-Cabrera. Follow her on Twitter @MCaruso_Cabrera.