MIAMI — A powerful coalition of U.S. companies is preparing to appeal to President-elect Donald Trump’s business instincts and drop his vow to reverse one of President Obama’s signature achievements: renewed relations with Cuba.
Candidate Trump pledged to close the recently reopened U.S. Embassy in Havana, cut the economic bonds established over the past two years and roll back regulations that made travel to the long-estranged island easier for U.S. citizens.
Now, dozens of major American companies that have started or expanded operations in Cuba under Obama’s policy will try to persuade Trump to ignore the political side of his brain and listen to the business side. That will be the ultimate test for Obama’s Cuba strategy of creating so many business opportunities that his successor would face the full weight of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a long list of businesses pushing to maintain the new links to the communist government that controls the country.
That list includes most major airlines, which have started regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba, and Carnival Corp., which is already running a regular Cuba cruise. It will include Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which is operating three Cuban hotels, and Airbnb, which is being used by more than 8,000 Cubans to rent their rooms to travelers.
There are tech giants, like Google and Cisco, trying to develop Cuba’s bare-bones telecommunications infrastructure, cellphone giants offering roaming services and banks starting to offer U.S.-issued credit and debit card services.
“Everybody is looking for a seat at the table,” said Pedro Freyre, a Miami-based attorney for the Akerman law firm, which represents many U.S. businesses operating in Cuba. “All of us who are stakeholders in Cuba are very active in lobbying. At this very moment, they are seeking an audience with the teams that will be part of the new administration.”
On the other side, the long-standing political coalitions that oppose any opening with Cuba will be tugging at the billionaire businessman’s ear as well. That is led by a powerful bloc of Cuban-American members of Congress. They have described Obama’s opening as a failed policy that has done nothing to moderate government control of the economy and a dismal human rights record.
“By any objective measure, President Obama’s unilateral policy changes have failed, and they are not in the best interest of the American people or the people of Cuba,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “Rolling back President Obama’s one-sided concessions to the Castro regime, a key campaign promise shared with President-elect Trump, will be a top priority for me next year.”
Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced the historic end to their countries’ estrangement on Dec. 17, 2014, ending 55 years of isolation between the Cold War foes and sparking a surge in trade and travel between the United States and Cuba.
Travel to Cuba as a tourist is still forbidden under the economic embargo the U.S. maintains — and that Congress has vowed will remain. But in the first six months of this year, 136,913 Americans visited Cuba, up 180% from the same period in 2015, according to Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information.
Defenders of Obama’s policy say the rush of Americans has helped everyday Cubans, especially the growing numbers of private entrepreneurs.
Ricardo Torres Pérez, an economist at the Center for Studies of the Cuban Economy in Havana, said those tourists provide tangible benefits to Cubans who rent their homes to them, drive them around in taxis, take them on tours and feed them in restaurants.
“More interest in Cuba that helps some businesses and gives hope to the people? That is good,” Torres said. “That doesn’t reach all Cubans, but it’s a good start.”
The increased travel has gone the other way, too, helping Cubans visit relatives, set up business relationships and study in the U.S. Many are Cuban entrepreneurs like Marta Deus, 28, a Havana resident who spent six weeks studying marketing and sales at Florida International University in Miami through an exchange program created after the rapprochement.
Deus now runs an accounting firm for Cuban entrepreneurs, a messenger service in Havana and a business magazine launched this month, and she employs nine full-time employees and several part-time contractors. She said the Cuban government has not made enough changes to take full advantage of the opportunities created by the Obama administration, but Trump’s proposal to close the door would hurt regular Cubans in so many ways.
“All those cultural exchanges, they’re important,” she said. “No country can flourish if it’s closed to the world.”
Guillermo Fariñas sees all those changes and scoffs. The leading Cuban dissident, who recently completed his 25th hunger strike protesting the Cuban regime, said they’ve done nothing to change the underlying problem in Cuba: its political system and horrid human rights record.
The Seventh Congress of the Cuban Communist Party ended in April with no changes to the government’s one-party rule. And Fariñas, one of the dissidents who met with President Obama during a March visit to Havana, said Cuba’s crackdown on political opposition has only increased.
In 2013, the Cuban government made 6,424 arrests of dissidents and political prisoners, according to the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation. Through the first 10 months of 2016, that number is already 9,125.
Fariñas said that should have been expected since the Obama administration gave plenty during its negotiations but secured little in return.
“Like you would see in any negotiation, the Cuban government should be expected to give something to get something back,” he said. “On the contrary, the Cuban government was given many economic concessions, political credibility and (Castro) has only responded by increasing political repression.”
Alan Gomez, USA Today
November 20, 2016