New call for easing restrictions on Cuba

A group of well known U.S. personalities has urged President Barack Obama to support Cuba’s civil society and growing private business sector by increasing travel and export opportunities on the island.

Easing U.S. restrictions in those areas will give “greater freedom to private organizations and individuals to directly and indirectly serve as catalysts for meaningful change in Cuba,” the group said in an open letter to Obama.

The letter was signed by more than 40 U.S. businessmen and foreign policy experts, and was endorsed by the Cuban Study Group (CSG), a group of Cuban-American businessmen funded to promote improved relations with the island.

Among the signers were several former State Department officials well known for the top posts they held, including Thomas Pickering, Strobe Talbot, Alexander Watson and Arturo Valenzuela.

Also signing were two former heads of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, Vicki Huddleston and Michael Parmly, as well as Cuban American businessmen Andres Fanjul, Paul Cejas and CSG founder Carlos Saladrigas.

The letter came at a time when a growing number of groups have been calling on the Obama administration to warm up relations with Cuba in order to take advantage of ruler Raúl Castro’s efforts to reform the island’s all-but stagnant economy.

Obama should allow more travel by organizations specializing in law, real estate and land titling, financial services and credit, hospitality, and other areas “defined as supporting independent economic activity,” the letter said.

Academic institutions should be allowed to open bank accounts in Cuba to support their programs there, it added, and U.S. visitors should have access to pre-paid cards and other financial services in order to expand the possibilities of commerce with private businesses in Cuba.

Obama also should allow U.S. entities to lend money to private businesses in Cuba, expand the type of goods that can be sent to the island and authorize the sale of more telecommunications equipment to Cuba, the letter said.

The group acknowledges that the U.S. Congress is unlikely to change Cuba policies — deadlocked between Senate Democrats and House Republicans — but said Obama could use his executive powers to change some things during his last two years in office.

“Timing matters and this window of opportunity may not remain open indefinitely. At the same time, the U.S. is finding itself increasingly isolated internationally in its Cuba policy,” the letter said.

Obama has made several gestures toward Havana, including allowing Cuban Americans to make unlimited trips and send remittances to relatives on the island and allowing other U.S. residents to make educational “people to people” trips to Cuba.

But relations stalled after Cuba’s 2009 arrest of Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor serving a 15-year sentence for crimes against the country’s security by illegally delivering sophisticated communications equipment to Cuban Jews.

The letter drew an immediate rebuke from Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuban Democracy political action committee, a powerful advocate of keeping strong sanctions on the Cuba’s communist government.

The signers made no mention of Cuba’s continuing human rights abuses, its support for the beleaguered Venezuelan government or its illegal arms shipment to North Korea, Claver-Carone wrote in his blog, Capitol Hill Cubans.

“History has proven that the Castro regime only eases economic control when forced to, not as a ‘good-will’ measure,” he added. “This letter is (once again) reacting to Castro’s bait.”

Claver-Carone also said that the Obama administration could best help Cuba’s small class of private entrepreneurs by requiring “people to people” visitors to stay in B&B-style private homes and eat in private restaurants.

Most “people to people” visitors now stay in government-owned hotels, he argued, and “thus the biggest financial beneficiary of current U.S. travel to Cuba is the Castro regime’s tourism conglomerates.”

Meanwhile, the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced that he would make his first trip to Cuba in 15 years to gauge how the growth of the private business sector could create opportunities for American corporations, The Associated Press reported.

Chamber head Thomas J. Donohue said he would meet with entrepreneurs and government officials and speak to students at the University of Havana next week. He will be accompanied by executives from Alticor, the parent company of the Amway direct-sales business, and Cargill, the Minnesota-based agribusiness giant.

“This trip will provide us with a first-hand look at changes in Cuba’s economic policies and whether or not they are affecting the ability to do business there,” Donohue said.

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