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Back from Cuba, Caterpillar executives hope company plays key role in rebuilding infrastructure

Caterpillar Inc. Chairman and CEO Doug Oberhelman speaks with an official from the Cuban Ministry of Culture in front of Finca Vigia, the Cuban home and museum of Ernest Hemingway, during a trip to the island nation last week.

PEORIA — The trip to Cuba last week by Caterpillar Inc. executives and members of the Puerto Rican dealership selected to represent the company there as decades-old sanctions begin to melt away was less a maiden voyage and more a welcome return.

That’s how one vice president who was part of the delegation characterized the journey, which included CEO Doug Oberhelman conducting meetings in Spanish with representatives of Cuban government ministries for transportation, infrastructure, energy and culture, as well as a philanthropic stop to announce a company donation to help preserve Ernest Hemingway’s legacy.

“We have been engaged with Cuba and other entities for quite some time,” said Kathryn Karol, Caterpillar’s vice president of global government affairs. “As we were meeting with the government of Cuba, they were very receptive to the Caterpillar business model with our dealerships. … It was very clear to us that they know where they need to go.”

Caterpillar in February selected RIMCO, the dealership based in Puerto Rico, to represent the company in Cuba. A number of decades-old Caterpillar machines still operate in Cuba from the days before the 55-year-old U.S. embargo on trade with the nation began.

Karol said Caterpillar continues to work with U.S. legislators toward fully lifting the embargo and normalizing trade relations with Cuba. The Cuban government, meanwhile, outlined during the trip last week some of the steps it is taking toward privatization and entrepreneurship as it seeks to rebuild outdated infrastructure.

“The U.S. Congress is really where our focus will be for our federal team,” Karol said. “They need a company like Caterpillar in Cuba. We can be very helpful as they rebuild their infrastructure and energy platform.”

The team delivered the first piece of new Caterpillar equipment in Cuba during the trip as well, donating a U.S.-licensed skid-steer loader to The Finca Vigia Foundation, named for the house where novelist Hemingway lived most of the last two decades of his life.

The Caterpillar Foundation previously donated $500,000 to the preservation efforts of Hemingway’s legacy, and donated the equipment to help in construction of a building that will house one-of-a-kind artifacts of the writer’s life.

Karol said she hopes more Caterpillar parts and new products will make their way to Cuba soon, though there is not yet a time line for the trade embargo to be fully lifted. Caterpillar equipment could once again find its way to the central highway after working on construction of the original road in the early 1900s.

“The road that is still used today in Cuba had Cat equipment on it,” Karol said. “We’d like to see traffic due to road construction in Cuba with Cat yellow on it — and so would they.”

Matt Buedel, Journal Star