By: Megan R. Wilson
When President Obama touches down in Cuba next week, he’ll have a Washington entourage on his heels.
More than a dozen lobbyists, advocates and corporate professionals are traveling to Cuba to be part of Obama’s historic visit, along with diplomats, executive branch officials and members of Congress.
“The big thing is to go and be a part of history,” said James Williams, the president of Engage Cuba, a coalition of business groups and think tanks pushing for further reengagement between the two countries. He and a handful of others from the group will be making the trip to meet with government officials and connect with Cuban entrepreneurs.
Obama’s visit to Cuba will be the first by a sitting American president in 88 years. While a trade embargo remains in effect, barriers between the two nations are rapidly fallingand businesses are scrambling to get a piece of the action.
Almost 100 businesses, industry groups and nonprofits have disclosed lobbying on issues related to Cuba; for them, Obama’s visit is a prime opportunity.
The law and lobby giant Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld is sending a duo of lobbyists to the country during Obama’s trip, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Major League Baseball (MLB) are coming to the island with entire delegations.
MLB, which has for years lobbied to ease the restrictions on Cuban players wishing to play for U.S. teams, is bringing about 200 people to the island — including players, managers, trainers, club staff, corporate sponsors and some individuals from the Florida community, said Daniel Halem, the league’s chief legal officer.
Members of baseball’s top brass will also be there, including Commissioner Rob Manfred, Chief Operating Officer Tony Petitti and Hall of Famer Joe Torre, who serves as MLB’s chief baseball officer.
The league is also bringing special guests: Derek Jeter and two legendary Cuban-born former baseball players, Luis Tiant and José Cardenal.
Head MLB lobbyists Joshua Alkin, who works in-house at the league, and Lucy Calautti, a longtime outside consultant, will also be making the trip.
On Tuesday, Obama will watch an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.
Halem says that there won’t be any heavy-duty lobbying efforts going on during the visit, but the league is planning a giant bash on Monday night, as well as offering a clinic on the exhibition field with the Tampa Bay players and Cuban children.
“Maybe some informal conversations [will occur], given that there will be so many government officials there,” he told The Hill, but said, “We’re not planning on sitting down and talking about substantive issues.”
Planning for the trip — and the events — has been a logistical challenge as the league navigates security, travel and legal hurdles. Financing is still not permitted, so everything must be paid for in cash.
Earlier this week, however, Obama released guidelines that could help MLB by allowing Cuban citizens to work in the U.S. and collect paychecks from U.S. companies.
For Akin Gump, K Street’s No. 1 firm by revenue, Anya Landau French and Devry Boughner Vorwerk will be making the two-and-a-half hour flight to Cuba to act as a “Sherpa” to guide clients looking for opportunities in the country.
“We view this trip in a context of a partnership” between the U.S. and Cuba, said Scott Parven, who heads the firm’s Cuba practice. “Having us there on the ground being a Sherpa for these clients is adding real value to them.”
“We cut across both the political and economic initiatives and agendas of the trip in a unique way,” he said.
Vorwerk, who recently joined Akin Gump from the agriculture giant Cargill, will be also traveling in her role as the chairwoman of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, which is supportive of an end to the trade embargo.
Even though the trip will be chaotic, given the sheer amount of senior government officials going, she said it would be worth it.
The trip is “a catalyst that outweighs the challenges,” she said. “This is the launching point for a more significant commercial relationship, so being there is really important.”
Jodi Bond, the president of the Chamber’s U.S.-Cuba Business Council, and the council’s chairman, Carlos Gutierrez, are leading a collection of U.S. businesses around Havana, though the Chamber did not clarify which businesses are involved.
Some companies are making headway in their advocacy efforts, including those in the travel and hospitality industries, as restrictions on travel are being loosened.
Tractor manufacturing company Cleber recently became the first U.S. factory approved to assemble and sell its products to farmers in Cuba.
Additionally, AT&T, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide and Marriott International are soon expected to announce agreements with Cuban government-run entities, corporate and U.S. officials told The Wall Street Journal last week. Sprint and Verizon already provide cellphone roaming services in Cuba.
Xerox chairman CEO Ursula Burns and Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson, the chairwoman and vice chairman, respectively, of Obama’s Export Council, will be heading to Cuba with the president.
Xerox will also be bringing Michele Cahn, its vice president of global government affairs.
“The trip offers Ursula the opportunity to better understand business and economic issues facing countries such as Cuba,” a company spokesman told The Hill. “That knowledge is useful to our business as Xerox currently operates in 180 countries worldwide.”
Others in the Cuba community are avoiding the flashbulbs of the highly politicized trip.
“There are some people that you deal with, in Washington especially, that need to have the selfie and self-affirmation,” said John Kavulich, the president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, who just returned from a trip to Cuba. “When you’ve been at this for almost 25 years, there are some that require that. That’s not what we do.”
The group has been around since 1994 and is one of the oldest business organizations focused on Cuba.
“There are many who have been involved and made things happen between the two countries when neither country wanted things to happen,” he said, referring in part to his own organization.