Opinion: Don’t close door on a relationship with Cuba

As President Donald Trump prepares to unveil his policy toward Cuba in Little Miami this week, we are hearing reports that he plans to reverse President Barack Obama’s efforts to normalize relations. Rolling back Obama’s historic policy would not further our nation’s security or economic interests, and would only assuage a small group of Cuban-American politicians who have dictated U.S.-Cuba policy for six decades. It would be bad news for the growing private sector in Cuba and for American businesses alike.

I have traveled to Cuba more than 30 times since 1984 and have just returned from a two-week study tour there, where I met with small-business owners, ordinary Cubans, leaders of religious organizations, historians, musicians and educators. The reversal in the normalization of relations between the two neighbors would cause ordinary Cubans to suffer.

Since Obama normalized relations with the island in December 2014, U.S. tourism in Cuba has shot up 77%. Private Cuban restaurants, hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, taxis, artists, tobacco farmers and tour guides saw their profits grow with the normalization of relations. The Boston Consulting Group predicts that U.S. tourism could reach 2 million a year by 2025.

Reversing course would cost jobs and revenue, particularly for the U.S. travel industry.  U.S hotelier Starwood has already entered into an agreement with three Cuban enterprises to manage the high-end hotels in Havana, and U.S. cruise lines dot the Cuban horizon daily.

Forty-six U.S. travel companies recently wrote a letter to Trump urging him not to reverse Obama’s travel reforms. They wrote: “The increase in American visitors to Cuba has had a significant impact on our businesses by increasing our revenue and allowing us to hire more American employees.”

Stopping the normalization of relations also stands to cut off a growth opportunity for Michigan’s agriculture sector, leaders of which met with Cuba Ambassador José Cabañas in Michigan earlier this year. The opportunity for trade between Michigan and Cuba is so promising that Cabañas hosted a reception for “Cuba-Michigan Day” at the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., last week.

If the U.S. wants to promote democracy on the island, the surest way forward is increased contact. Teams of U.S. tourists bring not only their business, but their values and their free market ideas. Even the Cuban Catholic Church is offering classes in entrepreneurship and human resources. This is precisely the type of political and economic opening that Obama’s policy of normalization promoted and Trump’s backtracking to the days of the Cold War will impede.

If Trump moves forward to reverse America’s Cuba policy, the administration will seriously hurt Cuba’s nascent private sector, injure U.S. businesses, block future opportunities for Michigan businesses and deny freedom to travel to U.S. citizens. It is bad foreign policy and it is bad business.

Donna Rich Kaplowitz, Detroit Free Press

June 14, 2017

Donna Rich Kaplowitz is an assistant professor at the College of Education at Michigan State University.

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