By: Megan Cassella
Members of Congress, lobbyists and others who support normalizing relations with Cuba are wagering that when it comes to dealing with Donald Trump, appealing to his business side might be the most effective way to move him toward lifting the decades-old economic embargo.
A bipartisan group of about a half-dozen lawmakers from both chambers of Congress, including Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Republican Rep. Tom Emmer (Minn.), called on the incoming president at a press conference Wednesday to consider the business opportunities afforded not just to Cuban citizens but also to Americans if he takes steps to boost economic engagement between the two nations.
"We do not want to go backward,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said at the event, warning the president-elect against undoing steps President Barack Obama initiated through executive orders. While Trump has at times talked about his support for opening up Cuba, he also gave a speech toward the tail end of his campaign indicating more of a hard-line stance, she noted.
“We’re following the Twitter feed,” the Minnesota Democrat said. “We hope that there can be a case made here with entrepreneurs like this — he is a businessman himself — that we need to move forward.”
James Williams, president of the Washington-based advocacy organization Engage Cuba, said he and colleagues have been in touch with the president-elect’s transition team, and while it remains unclear what the next administration wants to do policy-wise, they remain optimistic. Trump has yet to take a concrete stance toward Cuba, and he has hardly commented on policy decisions involving the island nation since his election a month ago.
“It’s been quite positive in the conversations that we’ve been having and our allies have been having,” Williams said. “I think they’re looking for options, are there deals that could be made, who should benefit and who shouldn’t — and I think that’s healthy.”
On Capitol Hill, the lawmakers appeared alongside four female entrepreneurs who traveled to Washington from Cuba to share stories of private businesses they have started and how increased access to U.S. markets has helped them grow.
In an open letter to the president-elect, they and a group of more than 100 other Cuban entrepreneurs emphasized the impact of U.S. policy toward the island nation on their “commercial relationship with the United States and the rest of the world.”
“As a successful businessman, we’re confident that you understand the importance of economic engagement between nations,” says the letter. “Small businesses in Cuba have the potential to be drivers of economic growth in Cuba and important partners of the U.S. business community.”
The idea, Williams said, was that if Trump heard stories of Cubans working to build businesses that employed other Cubans and allowed them to earn more money than provided in the public sector, he would feel more open to engaging with the country.
“We feel like his business side should care about this,” he added.
Rep. Kathy Castor, who last year introduced legislation alongside Emmer and others to lift the Cuban embargo, added a more personal aspect, arguing that given the pride Trump takes in his daughter Ivanka’s business acumen, he may well be similarly affected hearing from other young female entrepreneurs.
And while addressing U.S. legislative policy toward Cuba may not be high on many politicians’ agendas, including Trump’s, the Florida Democrat noted that American businesses are beginning to speak more often on the subject because of the economic possibilities.
She listed, as two examples, airports that now offer direct flights to Cuba — a service that created more jobs in U.S. communities, including her home district of Tampa, Fla. — as well as the agriculture sector, which has been active in trying to sell to Havana.
“Can we expand that?” she said. “And will we be able to expand that if we don’t lift the embargo?”