By Vito Echevarria
CUBA STANDARD — As the government lets Cubans set up their own micro businesses, launches an export processing zone at Mariel, and passes a new foreign investment law, at least three U.S. trade groups and think tanks, including the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC), are planning trips to Havana this spring.
While U.S. business delegations have been traveling to Cuba for more than a decade, their number and high level is noteworthy.
Geoff Thale, program director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a long-time advocacy group against the embargo, said that with evolving attitudes of the Cuban exile community toward Cuba, and interest among U.S. lawmakers to engage with Cuba, he’s not surprised to hear about these upcoming visits.
“I think all the travel we are seeing reflects growing recognition that change is going on in Cuba, and growing momentum for change in U.S. policy,” he said.
The Washington-based USCC, the influential group that bills itself as the voice in Washington of 3 million businesses, is being tight-lipped about their agenda and participants.
“I’m not able to elaborate at this time, said Tyler Hernández, USCC’s manager of media relations. He did confirm that his office is planning an educational trip to Havana this May, but didn’t want to go further. José Raúl Perales, who heads USCC’s Americas Department, was just as cryptic, noting that his office is still organizing the trip.
“There are many moving pieces here, so I don’t have anything about Cuba and the USCC at this time,” he said.
However, talk in Washington circles has it that USCC chief executive Thomas Donohue will be heading the group, which may also include Steve Van Andel, president of the USCC board and chairman of Amway Corp. “I would be hard-pressed to believe that the head of USCC is going to Cuba and will not be meeting with Raúl,” said one insider who declined to go on the record.
The New York-based Americas Society (AS/COA) is also press-shy about an educational trip that its Cuba Working Group is planning to Havana. While not denying that her office is putting together its own educational trip to Cuba, spokesperson Adriana La Rotta refrained from providing details of her office’s agenda, but sources close to the group said AS/COA will use its own license, and that the trip will focus on microcredit and microfinance.
Another group that will send a delegation is the Institute of the Americas. Located on the University of California’s San Diego campus and headed by Charles Shapiro, a former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela and a former coordinator of Cuban Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, the Institute of the Americas is organizing an educational one-week trip to Cuba this May under an OFAC license. Shapiro is leading that trip, which will let participants talk to high-ranking Cuban government officials, interact with members of the island’s emerging small business owners, meet artists and musicians, and debate with economists about the reforms.
It’s an educational trip to show people what’s happening on the ground in Cuba,” said Chandler Martin, Director of Cuba Programs at the Institute of the Americas. “Charles is going. I’m going, along with a group interested in Cuba policy.” Leaving out who was joining her trip, Martin would only say “the group includes individuals who are either retired or are simply interested in Cuba.”
Martin did say that many participants are interested in the Mariel port expansion and what it means for Cuba’s current investment promotion efforts, along with its export processing zone and who is likely to sign on to it, such as companies from Brazil and China. She also mentioned Cuba’s new foreign investment law as a draw for participants.
News of influential U.S. groups trekking to Havana is well-received by advocacy groups. “I think the visits – by the Chamber, the Americas Society, the Institute (of the Americas) in San Diego—reflect several related trends,” said WOLA’s Thale. “First, the process of economic reform in Cuba has sparked interest in the U.S. business community, (which is) reflected in (events) like the upcoming conference co-sponsored by the International Law Section of the Florida Bar on doing business in Cuba. The just-announced investment law, the emerging small business sector, the port at Mariel, all suggest possibilities for trade and investment, and the business community is interested in exploring now what those possibilities might be down the road.”
“Second, the reform process in general has piqued the interest of a variety of foreign policy analysts who are trying to get a sense of where the process of change in Cuba is headed,” Thale continued. “A couple of years ago, analysts who followed Cuba were debating whether the reform process was real. That debate is over. Serious analysts agree that the Cuban government is leading a real and serious process of economic reform. I think that has stimulated a lot of interest in questions like what model, if any, the Cuban government has in mind, how far the reforms will go, (and) what political implications they will have.”