By: Catherine Ho
Lobbyists for the U.S. agriculture industry and major business groups are descending on Havana, hoping to leverage President Obama’s historic trip to Cuba to advance their interests on the island.
Obama is traveling to Cuba from March 20 to 22, the first time a sitting U.S. president will visit the island in 88 years. The trip comes more than a year after Obama’s December 2014 announcement that the United States would reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Without congressional action to repeal the embargo — which is unlikely to happen during an election year — lobbyists are using the highly publicized trip to promote the economic benefits of restoring commercial ties with Cuba. They were in contact with administration officials for weeks before the trip, handpicking Cuban business owners to attend White House-planned entrepreneurship events, and connecting local entrepreneurs with U.S. companies looking to forge deals or collaborate on projects.
“We’re really excited about this trip because we think it gives us a major shot in the arm to Congress needing to act on this,” said James Williams, a Democratic political strategist and head of the lobbying coalition Engage Cuba. “The more we talk about it, the more it’s in the news, the better the chances are in Congress.”
Engage Cuba was formed last year to push Congress and the administration to loosen travel, trade and other restrictions between the United States and Cuba. Its members and partners include the National Association of Manufacturers, Choice Hotels, Comcast NBC Universal and P&G.
Williams said leaders of the group were in close contact with White House staff before the trip, and flagged individuals with whom they want the president to meet. For example, they pitched Ruben Valladares, the owner of Havana printing business Adorgraf, which is partnering with Pennsylvania-based packaging company Commonwealth (the family business of one of Engage Cuba’s employees). The companies jointly created reusable bags embossed with the saying, “Packaged for a Better Future,” designed specifically for the president’s visit. Valladares planned to present the bag to the president during an event organized by the White House.
The message, Williams said, is that normalization allows U.S. and Cuban businesses to work together to share access to materials and best practices.
Williams is traveling with the chief executive of Stonegate Bank, which recently began offering customers a debit card that can be used in Cuba; the head of the advocacy group Cuba Now; and the chair of Engage Cuba’s business council.
They arranged media tours for journalists to meet with Cuban artist Michel Mirabal, known for his paintings of U.S. and Cuban flags, in his studio.
Lobbyists at Akin Gump, the nation’s largest lobby firm, will be traveling to Havana with representatives of half a dozen agriculture industry groups and companies including Kansas Wheat, Illinois Soy, Sun-Maid and Cargill.
They are working to advance an agreement between the U.S. and Cuban agriculture industries to promote two-way trade, production, investments, supply chain, farmer training and research and development.
Under current law, the U.S. can sell food to Cuba, one of the few exceptions to the trade embargo. However, it must be paid for in cash rather than credit, and U.S. farm groups have long argued that allowing credit-based transactions would help them compete with other countries that do extend credit to Cuba.
Last year, Akin Gump created a new practice group dedicated to advising companies looking to do business in Cuba.
“With the president’s visit, this is a launching point,” said Devry Boughner Vorwerk, a lobbyist at Akin Gump who leads the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, comprised of more than 100 agriculture industry groups and companies. “It will significantly change the commercial relationship between the U.S. and Cuba and with companies. Engagement builds the confidence of investors and those that want to trade with Cuba.”