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US Chamber of Commerce Eyes Profits in Communist Cuba

By: María Gabriela Díaz - May 28, 2014, 1:58 pm

Español A delegation from the US Chamber of Commerce (USCC) arrived in Havana, Cuba, yesterday afternoon to explore the recent economic transformations promised by President Raúl Castro. The USCC visit is the first one in more than a decade; the last one was in July 1999.

“I’m here because of the evidence that we’re seeing in Cuba of an extraordinary expansion of free enterprise, the reduction in government jobs, and more private hiring, all of which is moving in the right direction,” the USCC President Thomas Donohue asserted.

Donohue headed the visit, joined by Steve Van Andel, current USCC vice president and chairman of the board of directors of the Amway Corp., Marcel Smits, Cargill’s chief financial officer, and other USCC members. Upon their arrival, the USCC delegation met with Cuba’s minister of foreign relations, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, and the minister of foreign trade and investment, Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz.

The USCC president will visit a private auto-repair cooperative, the Mariel development zone, and give out a speech at the University of Havana.

The presence of both Cargill and Amway in the island is motivated mainly by Castro’s latest modest reforms in the agricultural production and self-employment sectors.

Cuba has been forced to increase agricultural production to mitigate economic dependence on food imports and reduce the state payroll. In April 2011, the legislature passed the Communist Party Guidelines for Economic Reform (Lineamientos de la Política Económica y Social del Partido y la Revolución) as the foundations for their new economic model. It allows Cubans to enter the private sector as self-employed entrepreneurs or as employees in small businesses.

Cuba visit USCC
USCC President Thomas Donohue, alongside Roberto de Armas, official of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations. Source: Anabel Díaz.

Cuba has suqsequently decreased its US imports of agricultural products in 2013, which reached US$348.7 million, the lowest in seven years.

The USCC president has been a strong supporter for lifting the US embargo, which has been in place for more than five decades. “As you know, the chamber for years has been opposed to the sanctions as they are used,” Donahue stated yesterday.

In the midst of several economic reforms undertaken by Raúl Castro’s regime during the past few years, Cuba’s government has tried to sell a more investment-friendly image through its new foreign investment law and the creation of a special development zone (free zone) at the port Mariel.

The USCC visit comes one day after 60 business representatives from Mexico visited the island with the purpose of exploring investment options in Cuba. The visit also served to announce the opening of a ProMéxico trade office in Havana.

Raul Castro’s “New” Cuba: A New Era for US Cold-War Policy?

Donahue’s visit comes after a group of 44 policy-reform advocates and former US officials signed an open letter to President Barack Obama urging the White House to engage in “serious discussions” with the Cuban government on security and humanitarian issues. Organizations such as Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) advocate an end to the embargo, and change through engagement with Cuba:

“U.S. policy toward Cuba is an out-moded relic of the Cold War that has failed to promote human rights or democracy and, instead, has isolated the United States from the region.”

Even though the Obama administration acknowledges Cuba’s economic progress, it doesn’t leave aside the need for other kinds of reforms. During an interview with Cuban political dissident and editor of the outlet 14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, US Vice President Joe Biden stated, “we note the Cuban government’s changes to its investment laws, and hope that such efforts to attract foreign investment to Cuba will be accompanied by expanded rights and freedoms for the Cuban people to allow them to realize their full potential.”

US Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) has expressed his concern with the USCC visit and its desires to strengthen its relationship with Cuba. His open letter, addressed to Donahue, states that “A government that jails foreign business leaders without justification, violates international labor standards, and denies its citizens their basic rights. Such conditions hardly seem an attractive opportunity for any responsible business leader.”

Jose Azel, a Cuban exile scholar and senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS) at the University of Miami has also weighed in on the event.

“Under a totalitarian system, where all the economic activity is at the service of the state, the economic sanctions limit the available economic resources for the regime. Therefore, a unilateral and unconditional elimination of these economic sanctions will inevitably extend, to some degree, the economic resources of the Cuban regime. Why should we support a change that will strengthen a regime that oppresses its compatriots?”

The PanAm Post had the opportunity to interview Huber Matos Garsault, grandson of Huber Matos, who was a prominent Cuban dissident and former leader in the Cuban revolution alongside Fidel Castro.

“We think the purpose of this visit was publicity,” Matos Garsault says, “to increase the pressure on the Obama administration, so it lifts the sanctions on trade between US businessmen and the Castro regime.… Cuba’s changes have a clear purpose defined by Raúl Castro: ‘to perfect socialism,’ not to start a political transition. In Cuba, socialism is understood as the Castro regime, with no authentic opposition, no elections, and no liberties.”

In this same vein, Janisset Rivero, deputy secretary of the Cuban Democratic Directory — an NGO that promotes democracy in Cuba — regards the so-called reforms as a mirage.

“There aren’t any significant economic transformations,” she says, “nor a true foreign investment law because the main problem in Cuba is that there are no political or economic liberties.”

According to Rivero, a dialogue between United States and Cuba can’t be fostered “without first promoting respect for human rights, the liberation of political prisoners, the legalization of independent civil society, and the convening of free elections with international supervision.”

“Raul Castro’s regime has 55 years in power, without free elections. The Cuban people must be heard. There just can’t be economic freedom without first having political freedom.”

María Gabriela Díaz María Gabriela Díaz

María Gabriela Díaz reported from Caracas, Venezuela, and led the PanAm Post internship program. She has a Bachelor of Arts in political science with a focus in international affairs.