Meet Hugo Cancio, the middleman connecting U.S. and Cuban businesses

by Scott Stump / / Source: TODAY

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When President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced a thaw in relations between the two countries for the first time in more than 50 years, Hugo Cancio found himself in the perfect spot.

With strong connections to both sides, Cancio, 51, has become an important middleman as entrepreneurs try to make inroads in the newly open nation. The Cuban-American businessman has been helping U.S. businesses and politicians navigate socialist Cuba, while working with his contacts in the Cuban government to help them understand Americans. On Monday, the two nations took another step forward in normalizing relations when the American flag was raised at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961.

"I've never said (the Cuban government) accepted me in this role,'' Cancio told NBC's Kerry Sanders. "We have communication, respectful communication, this trust that has been built for years, so they listen to me, and I listen to them."

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Born in Cuba five years after Fidel Castro took power, Cancio came to the United States as a teenager in 1980 as one of the thousands who left via the Mariel boatlift, when Castro announced that anyone who wanted to leave the country could do so if they had a boat. He grew up in Miami Beach and worked at several car dealerships before he opened a travel agency facilitating trips to Cuba, according to The New Yorker.

The son of a famous Cuban musician, he than began bringing Cuban bands to the United States in the 1990s, which did not sit well with the anti-Castro Cubans in Miami.

"There was a time when they threw a Molotov cocktail at one of our concerts, one of our venues, and blew the door up,'' he said. "Another time someone blew up a car similar to mine."

Tensions with Cuba have eased dramatically under Obama, providing Cancio with the opportunity to return to the land of his birth to become a businessman. He is the CEO of a holding company called Fuego Enterprises, which runs a bimonthly magazine called "OnCuba" and has interests in media, entertainment, tourism, real estate and telecommunications, according to The New Yorker.

While Cancio looks forward to the future and helping U.S. businesses see the investment opportunities in Cuba, he wants to the country to retain its distinct culture.

"I do not want to see a thousand McDonald's, 50 Burger Kings around Havana,'' he said.

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