By: Michael Weissenstein
HAVANA (AP) - Big businesses and politicians from both sides of the ideological spectrum are putting their muscle into new Washington lobbying efforts to end the U.S. embargo on Cuba as the two countries press ahead to re-establish diplomatic relations.
A new bi-partisan lobbying group called Engage Cuba is launching operations this month with the backing of more than a dozen Fortune 500 firms ranging from hotel companies to agricultural businesses, said James Williams, who heads the effort.
At the same time, a political action committee called New Cuba PAC had planned its first fundraiser for Monday evening in the Miami home of attorney Scott Gilbert who represented former U.S. government contractor Alan Gross.
Gross was held on espionage charges in Havana for five years before being released in December amid moves toward restoring U.S.-Cuba relations.
Williams said Monday that Gross was speaking at the fundraiser, which New Cuba hoped would raise more than $50,000.
Efforts to end the decades-old sanctions against the Caribbean island typically have long been the domain of left-leaning activists and think tanks.
Engage Cuba, whose staff includes veteran Democratic and Republican operatives, over the near-term will focus on striking down a prohibition against American tourism to Cuba.
As part of the moves both countries announced last year, President Obama loosened the requirements for official permits for Americans to fly to Cuba to engage in 12 permitted activities ranging from educational travel to musical performances .
Williams, a Democratic political and fundraising consultant , said eliminating the restrictions on those activities was “inevitable.”
“We’re really starting to pivot to the next step,” he said. “I’m sure it’s going to happen a lot sooner than people think.”
A growing number of pro-business Republicans are siding with anti-embargo activists in calling for an end to U.S. restrictions on trade with Cuba, despite their party’s historical animosity toward the single-party communist government.
“We’re seeing an increasing number of Republicans seeing that this is a better route and that this is an opportunity for Republicans to put their stamp on this policy” said Ricardo Herrero, who works with Williams’ groups and heads his own new Cuban-American anti-embargo group called CubaNow.