By: Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick
U.S. lawmakers joined more than 100 Cuban entrepreneurs on Wednesday to urge President-elect Donald Trump to continue President Barack Obama’s engagement with Havana, despite Trump’s threat to end detente with the island.
Preparing for what could be a long fight, five congressional Democrats and one Republican held a news conference in Washington with Cuban entrepreneurs whose businesses had grown since the two countries moved toward more normal relations two years ago.
"I hope that the next president of the United States, as a businessman, understands our needs," said Yamina Vicente, who owns Decorazon, a party planning and decorating business in Havana.
"A few years ago, a new era of dreams in Cuba began. I hope that my children will be able to dream, too," Vicente said.
More than 100 Cuban small business owners sent a letter to Republican Trump on Wednesday urging him not to roll back Obama's rules to ease restrictions on travel, trade and investment and toward more normal diplomatic relations.
The appeal to Trump from Cuba's fledgling private sector underscored uncertainty about future relations between the two former Cold War foes, given his vow to halt what he called Obama’s "deal" unless Havana agreed to new terms.
Obama administration officials, seeking to further cement changes before Trump takes office on Jan. 20, held talks with Cuban counterparts in Havana on Wednesday. It was the first such meeting since Trump's election and the death of Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro.
Appealing to Trump's roots as a real estate developer, the Cuban entrepreneurs wrote, “As a successful businessman, we’re confident that you understand the importance of economic engagement between nations.”
"Additional measures to increase travel, trade and investment … will benefit our companies, the Cuban people and U.S. national interests," they wrote.
RESTAURANTS, HAIR SALONS, CAR REPAIR
The letter was organized by Cuba Educational Travel, a U.S. company that arranges trips to the island, and the Washington lobbying group Engage Cuba. It was signed by startups and small entrepreneurs including family-owned restaurants, technology firms, car services and hair salons.
The Obama administration has pressed for additional business with Cuba in hopes of making detente irreversible. Companies fear reversing Obama’s opening could cost them hundreds of millions of dollars.
Several U.S. airlines have begun direct flights to Cuba, a U.S. firm signed a contract to manage a hotel there, and industries from agriculture to technology are looking into opportunities involving the island.
Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd and Norwegian Cruise Line said on Wednesday they had received approval from Cuba's government to operate cruises to the island.
Cuban officials in Havana said on Wednesday that they are open to continuing to deepen the detente with the Trump administration, but also hope to reach half a dozen more business agreements before Obama leaves office next month.
Obama and President Raul Castro announced a breakthrough in diplomatic relations in December 2014. Since then, ties have been restored, and Obama has used executive actions to ease some business and travel restrictions, although the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress has resisted removing the broader U.S. embargo.
Trump has said Democrat Obama should have cut a "better deal," echoing critics who have said Cuba won too many concessions from the United States. At a campaign rally in Miami, Trump said he would seek to reverse the policy unless Cuba allowed greater freedom.
The Cuban government so far has mostly refrained from commenting on Trump's statements.
Obama's opening to Cuba is considered one of his legacy foreign policy achievements. Supporters say the policy is improving Cubans' lives while opening cracks in the socialist system.
Democratic U.S. Representative James McGovern urged businesses that might have Trump's ear to make the case for further opening.
"Make sure that they know that it is important that we not go backward. Call the president-elect, Tweet the president-elect. Whatever works," he said.
Raul Castro started introducing market-style reforms in 2011. Cuban entrepreneurs have complained, however, that more changes are needed. Private businesses still have no access to wholesale stores and can only import or export via government agencies. Internet service on the island is also limited.