Pritzker: U.S. business can be at the forefront of change in Cuba

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker gave the keynote address at a Cuba forum hosted by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and Tampa International Airport on March 30, 2015.
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker gave the keynote address at a Cuba forum hosted by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and Tampa International Airport on March 30, 2015. Miami Herald Staff

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker said Monday that she is planning a trip to Cuba as soon as diplomatic ties are renewed and that trading with the island can involve the U.S. business community in “positive change” in Cuba.

Pritzker gave the keynote address at a Cuba forum called “Tampa at the Forefront of Historic Change” that was organized by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and Tampa International Airport.

“Our economy is showing a remarkable comeback,” she said. “Our businesses are exporting more than ever before. But our work is not complete.”

Even though U.S. exports reached a record $2.34 trillion in 2014, supporting 11.7 million American jobs, the United States needs to expand exports even more — including exports to Cuba, she said.

In the process, she said, U.S. business can empower the Cuban people and help forge a better economic future. President Barack Obama’s new Cuba policy, she said, “will allow the business community to be the face for positive change in Cuba.”

There’s a big role for Commerce in the new policy too, she said in an interview with the Miami Herald. “Our role is to facilitate trade,” she said. “Our belief is the economic side of the relationship can be a leader.”

Pritzker said she plans to lead a delegation to Cuba soon after diplomatic relations between the two countries have been renewed. There have been three rounds of U.S.-Cuba normalization talks.

Despite the excitement by some U.S. companies that have already begun exploring business opportunities in Cuba, Pritzker cautioned against unrealistic expectations. “This is a long process,” she said. “It’s not an overnight sensation.”

The Tampa Bay area has been trying to burnish its image as a gateway to new business and trade opportunities opened up by the historic rapprochement between the United States and Cuba announced Dec. 17.

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa/St. Petersburg, helped bring the secretary as well as other officials from Commerce, the State Department and the Office of Foreign Assets Control to the Tampa forum.

The audience in a full ballroom at the Marriott Tampa Airport Hotel peppered the officials about how the new commercial opening will work. It allows U.S. exporters to send American products to Cuba to support private businesses and farmers as well as the importation into the United States of some items produced by private entrepreneurs.

Currently the Cuban government controls all imports destined for the island and there isn’t a mechanism for the export of privately produced items.

However, Matthew Borman, Commerce’s deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Industry and Security, said, “We recognize the current structure is that of using government entities. If we took the position that the Cuban government couldn’t touch anything, then nothing would happen.”

He said under the new regulations, Alimport and other Cuban government importing agencies may still facilitate imports from U.S. companies and such products may go into government stores as long as the American exporter does due diligence to see the products will be offered for sale to the general public in Cuba.

The exporter must follow normal record-keeping requirements for any export, he said.

If a U.S. exporter, for example, sends an auto repair kit to the island, it will be necessary to show that ultimately it winds up in the hands of a private individual, said Borman, one of the chief authors of the new regulations.

However, as long as the auto repairman is self-employed, he may also use those imported tools to work on government vehicles or to fulfill a contract with the government, he said.

“We’re not looking to split hairs,” said Borman. But if U.S. exports are intended solely for “Cuban government use, the answer is no.”

When it comes to exporting paint, cement and other building materials to Cuba under the new rules, he said, such products may only go to a private individual working on a private building. Even if a private construction cooperative were contracted to work on a government building, Borman said, the answer would be no.

Although there have been a number of business and legal panels and seminars in Miami on new Cuba opportunities, South Florida politicians, for the most part, oppose the opening or have tried to steer clear of the topic.

In Tampa, which began offering its first direct charter flights to Cuba in 2011, there’s been more of an embrace of the new Cuba policy.

“It’s not unanimous in the Cuban-American community, but I would say the Tampa Bay community is overwhelmingly supportive of the new policy and greater engagement,” Castor said in an interview with the Herald.

Castor, who visited Cuba in April 2013, said she’s currently trying to arrange a congressional trip to the island. “I’m trying to recruit some of my Republican colleagues,” she said.

But while Castor said she thinks travel and cultural exchanges between the Tampa Bay area and Cuba will continue to grow, she thinks new trade and business ties will come more slowly — mostly because the Cubans aren’t yet prepared for the commercial opening outlined by the United States in December.

“The capacity of the Cuban government to handle this all at one time is an issue,” she said.