Engage Cuba: 90 miles are only 144 km

Excelencias Magazine

November 2015

ON DECEMBER 17, 2014, THE PRESIDENTS OF CUBA AND THE UNITED STATES PUBLICLY DECLARED THAT, OVER THE PAST 18 MONTHS, BOTH COUNTRIES HAD HELD SECRET NEGOTIATIONS IN A BID TO REACH AN AGREEMENT AND REESTABLISH DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS. NEARLY A YEAR LATER, THAT CHANGE IS TAKING PLACE THANKS TO THE WORK CARRIED OUT BY THIS COALITION THAT IS PRESENTLY LOBBYING IN WASHINGTON

When you meet James Williams it seems hard to believe that this apparently wet-behind-the-ears young man is the president of the most powerful coalition group that fosters a policy change towards the island nation: Engage Cuba. Moreover, it’s even harder to think that Williams is a strategist that has managed a three-million national campaign aimed at talking the Obama administration into changing relations with Havana.


James Williams admits that he fell in love with Cuba the very first time he visited the island. Its streets and people encouraged him to refocus his political activism work –which used to be related to the rights of diverse-sex communities- on an island that seemed to be very far, but that he now visits several times a year.


Before taking the helm of Engage Cuba, he was the director of Public Policy with Trimpa Group, a philanthropic organization related to political investment. During our talk, his beardless youth fades away and I realize that, if it all depended on this young man’s energy and intelligence, the coalition will go places.


The Washington-based group represents a bridge between the business community and Congress representatives. So this is how they take the message of companies interested in investing in Cuba –or at least having the opportunity to do so- to congressional offices. They make “door-to-door” policy so as to explain the potential of a trade relation with the Island.


“We’ve borne witness of a solid interest by the business community in terms of a US policy change toward Cuba. Although there are too many companies to be mentioned –among the sectors interested in investing in an effort to step up the end of the blockade- we can point out the agricultural, telecommunications, building and industries linked to the medical field. We’re looking forward to having more companies join this goal as December 17 is just around the corner, the first anniversary of the historic announcements issued by Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama,” Williams said in an exclusive interview with Excelencias magazine.


Quite precisely, President Obama seems to be laser-focusing his hopes on the business community, since Cuban-Americans in Congress stand against the normalization of relations. Williams believes that the change won’t take place overnight, but it’ll certainly come to pass. For a start, they are fostering a bill to allow US citizens travel to Cuba as tourists, which has had a favorable acclaim in the Senate, but there is certain reluctance in the House of Representatives.


The change won’t be reverted, Williams says, and one of the reasons is the number of US citizens that support the reestablishment of diplomatic relations. Boldface names from politics and business sectors also stand for the change, just like Pope Francis, former Secretary of State and democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Google CEO Eric Schmitd, Cuban-born sugar tycoon Alfonso Fanjul, among others.
“It’s incredible to think that, on December 16, 2014 most of surveys and specialists were forecasting that nothing would change in the US Cuba policy. Less than a year later, the embassies have been reopened and significant changes have taken place in terms of trade and travel,” according to Williams, who graduated in Foreign Relations at George Washington University.


However, there are some pending hurdles still in the way, such as the fact that Cuba cannot use dollars when it comes to trading with third countries or doing business with US subsidiaries overseas. This means Cuba could establish links with Apple in the United States, but it cannot do it in any other country. “Congress still has to act in order to lift travel and trade restrictions, so US citizens are allowed to freely visit Cuba and invest in it.”


Engage Cuba is first targeting the travel ban on the southern neighbor and it has even paid for an ad on such far-reaching TV stations as Fox News and MSNBC. “While we urge our lawmakers to lift the embargo, we’re also encouraging the dialogue between both countries in terms of the actions that must be taken when facing disaster situations, drug trafficking and environmental protection.” In fact, both countries have already held several meetings on these matters.


From the easiest to the hardest, that seems to be the path followed by Engage Cuba, which sometimes publicly –and sometimes behind the scenes- encourages change in a policy that has been dying for a long time.