CUBA STANDARD — Ratcheting up several notches the pressure on U.S. Congress to lift the embargo, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched a U.S.-Cuba Business Council, the group that represents 3 million businesses announced Friday.
The move comes a week after the Obama administration announced further easing of U.S. sanctions against Cuba. However, the Republican-controlled Congress is very critical of the White House’s normalization policy and continues to defend the embargo.
The U.S. Chamber has a long history of advocating for normal trade relations with Cuba, but the move points to a more concerted effort. Within Chamber politics, the Cuba Council lifts the island into the same category as Mexico and Brazil.
Already, the Chamber has spent more on Cuba-related lobbying — $31.6 million in the first half of 2015, according to U.S. Senate data — than everybody else combined.
The USCBC represents “a formal commitment by the American business community to build a strong and strategic commercial relationship between Cuba and the United States,” the chamber press release said. The council will “lead strategic efforts to maximize the potential of the U.S.-Cuba economic and trade partnership” advocate for reforms “in both the United States and Cuba,” and “seek to work with the U.S. Congress” and the public and private sectors in both countries to “remove barriers to trade,” according to the Chamber.
The Chamber will announce the structure and the members of the group at a later date.
The launch event included the president of the Cuban Chamber of Commerce, Orlando Hernández Guillén. A day later, U.S. Chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue met with Raúl Castro and Foreign Trade and Investment Minister Rodrigo Malmierca at Cuba’s United Nations mission in New York. Donohue was accompanied by Jodi Bond, vice president Americas for the Chamber, Caterpillar CEO and Chairman Douglas Oberhelman; Kenneth Siegel, chief administrative officer and corporate counsel for hotel chain Starwood; Art Torno, senior vice president of American Airlines; and Lee Godown, vice president of General Motors.
“We’re facing a historic opportunity to support a vital and growing Cuban private sector, one that is defined by entrepreneurs whose expanding efforts show that the spirit of free enterprise is already taking hold in the country,” Donohue said during the launch announcement in Washington. “This council will work tirelessly to ensure that both countries can take advantage of the new avenues for trade, investment and economic cooperation in the bilateral relationship.”
“We believe the business community will play a crucial role in continuing to move the needle toward greater normalization between the United States and Cuba,” said Susan Segal, president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas after a meeting with Rodrigo Malmierca in New York.
Donohue was in Cuba for three days in May last year, his second visit to the island. The main intent was to learn about the impact of Cuba’s economic reforms and meeting with entrepreneurs, government officials — including Raúl Castro — academics and religious leaders, and touring the new port and trade zone at Mariel.
The 11-member delegation included Chamber and Amway Corp. Chairman Steve Van Andel and Cargill Corp. CFO Marcel Smits, also a Chamber executive vice president.
Asked by a reporter whether Cuba is a good investment, Donohue responded that the country “would be a better investment if it had issues like arbitration, and agreements that would protect intellectual property, and ways that we could resolve our differences. But I believe that Cuba, 91 miles from our shore, with the new and extraordinary port that’s being built here, has the potential to develop as a very good investment not only for Americans, U.S. citizens, but from people around the world.”
The Chamber trip was attacked by hardliners in the U.S Congress, such as Cuban American Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and in a couple reader comments on the Granma website targeting Yanqui imperialism. But the majority of comments on both sides of the Florida Straits were vastly positive.
“Spectacular! Amway in Cuba — that will be the best for quality of life,” said one reader comment on the Granma website.