U.S. business groups set sights on Cuba

Politico

By: Megan Cassella

U.S. business officials are headed south this week to explore ways for American companies to boost business in Cuba and to scope out opportunities for foreign direct investment, setting up alongside companies from other nations at the annual Havana International Trade Fair. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s U.S.-Cuba Business Council will also meet with Cuban officials from both the public and private sectors during a three-day trip, a spokeswoman told Morning Trade.

One highlight of the week will be an announcement from Cuban Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment Rodrigo Malmierca on the nation’s 2016 portfolio of FDI opportunities at the fair and projects for which Cuba is seeking outside funding. The presentation will indicate what the government's economic priorities will be for the next 12 months, said James Williams, the president of Washington-based advocacy organization Engage Cuba.

“It’s an important week to see what we’re going to be working on with Cuba in that space for the coming year,” he added. For the U.S. business and investment communities, Williams said, the presentation also serves as a "progress report” on how much work has been done on previously announced projects.

The Chamber’s delegation will include executives from major companies like American Airlines and GE, and aims to focus on understanding the current economic state of affairs in the island nation as well as to share best business practices with emerging Cuba businesses, a Chamber spokeswoman added.

FIFTY YEARS OF EMBARGO POLICY, ILLUSTRATED: The trade fair, which is the largest of its kind in the Americas, is “kind of a surreal thing” for the way it paints a picture of how the Cuba embargo has hurt U.S. businesses’ opportunities in the region, Williams argued. The nonprofit organization he leads is dedicated to pushing for the removal of the trade and travel ban against Havana.

At the fair, every participating country gets its own pavilion in which companies from that nation will set up, Williams said. While countries like China, Russia and Vietnam have “massive pavilions,” the United States occupies only “like half a floor” in one. “It shows you we’ve locked ourselves out of the game for so long,” Williams said. “And that this is not a policy that happens in a vacuum. When we keep ourselves out of it, others take advantage.”

“It’s an interesting opportunity to see that Cuba is not necessarily this place that has been entirely untouched from foreign investment,” he added. “It just happens to be largely untouched by U.S. foreign investment.”

That may not be the case for long, however. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker highlighted on Monday her department’s recent steps to normalize relations with Cuba, including amending regulations six times in the past two years in order to help boost engagement.

“Since 2015, our Department has authorized over $6 billion worth of exports to Cuba — ranging from medicine to agricultural products to items that ensure the safety of civil aviation,” Pritzker said during a keynote speech at the Bureau of Industry and Security’s annual conference. “Our most recent action allows sales directly to the Cuban people. Although more steps are needed — including lifting the embargo — the changes made by BIS are helping to unlock Cuba’s economic potential and create opportunities for its people.”