Cuba’s top official for foreign investment used a historic speech before American business leaders on Tuesday to urge them to pressure lawmakers to end U.S. economic sanctions against his country, warning that their firms are losing ground to foreign competitors.
In the first address by a senior Cuban official to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in more than a half century, Foreign Trade Minister Rodrigo Malmierca said dozens of American companies have finalized negotiations with Cuban authorities and firms to export goods there or even build products on the communist-run island, but can’t move forward because of U.S. red tape.
Malmierca praised President Barack Obama for moving in December 2014 to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, which the United States broke off Jan. 3, 1961, but added that normal economic ties must follow.
“It is important that the U.S. government has recognized the failure of the policy of trying to make change in Cuba based on economic problems created by the blockade,” Malmierca said.
Just before Malmierca spoke in Washington, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Cuban Transportation Minister Adel Yzquierdo Rodriguez met at Havana’s Hotel Nacional to sign an accord restoring the first commercial air traffic between the two countries in five decades, with dozens of daily flights expected to start by the end of the year.
The Transportation Department immediately opened bidding to American carriers after Foxx concluded what he called “a critically important milestone in the U.S. effort to engage with Cuba.”
The deal was signed one day after the U.S. Treasury Department informed Cleber LLC, an Alabama-based company, that it could build a tractor factory in Cuba, the first American manufacturing plant to be operated there since the early 1960s.
Obama hopes to travel to the island nation as early as next month on a trip that would make him the first sitting president to visit there since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
Malmierca received a standing ovation from the audience of business executives after he was introduced by former U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez, the son of a Cuban pineapple plantation owner who fled with his family in 1960 and settled in Miami.
Gutiérrez, who headed the U.S. Commerce Department under President George W. Bush, recalled his emotional return to Cuba six months ago, his first since he left at age 6, to participate in ceremonies marking the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana on Aug. 14 last year.
“As a proud U.S. citizen born in Cuba, it became very evident to me that the love of the people, the love of the land of my birth – of my parents’ birth, of my grandparents’ birth, the land of my ancestors – that love was greater than any political differences that we could have between the two countries,” Gutiérrez said.
Gutiérrez, chairman of the recently formed U.S.-Cuba Business Council, echoed calls from the visiting Cuban officials to lift the American embargo, which would require an act of Congress.
“Normalization (of relations) is impossible while sanctions remain in place,” he said.
While 750,000 Americans visited Cuba last year, Malmierca noted that only about one-fifth of them were people with no family ties there or Cuban ancestry. Noting the importance of the Caribbean nation’s tourism industry, he expressed happiness over reports that more non-Cuban Americans are making plans to make a trip.
“I like that, although I’m a little bit concerned about where they are going to spend the night,” the minister said to laughter, adding that more hotels must be built.
Malmierca headed a large Cuban delegation that’s scheduled Wednesday to hold a second round of negotiations with U.S. counterparts over the two nations’ competing financial claims against each other, following opening talks in Havana in December.
Almost 6,000 American companies have filed government-certified claims for property worth a total of $1.9 billion when it was confiscated by the fledgling Communist regime after the country’s 1959 revolution.
The U.S. firms, among them Exxon Mobil, Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, Office Depot, and Starwood Hotels & Resorts, say the confiscated property is now worth at least $7 billion. Most of the companies have changed names through mergers or acquisitions since they operated in Cuba.
Cuba, for its parts, is trying to recover at least part of the $121 billion in damages it says the U.S. embargo has caused.
Grant Leach, an international trade lawyer from Omaha, Nebraska, was in the audience in the ornate Hall of Flags at the U.S. chamber’s headquarters across Lafayette Park from the White House.
Leach’s Kansas City, Missouri-based firm, Husch Blackwell, represents Midwest companies that want to sell agricultural equipment in Cuba. He’s hopeful that recent amendments to the regulations implementing the embargo will allow those sales to begin in the not-too-distant future.
“We are just really excited about trying to help agricultural production in Cuba by trying to export some of this equipment under the licensing process,” Leach told McClatchy during a break in the chamber luncheon.
Several Cuban and American officials and business leaders acknowledged that the warming of relations between the two countries could be short-lived depending on the outcome of the presidential election in November.
Alone among the leading Republican White House candidates, businessman Donald Trump supports expanded ties. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, along with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, oppose normalization under current Cuban leadership.
In an interview with Miami CBS4 News last week, John Kasich criticized Obama, saying he’d agreed to restore diplomatic relations prematurely, but the Ohio governor stopped short of saying he would freeze ties as president.
On the Democratic side, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has acknowledged that her position has changed from her failed 2008 White House bid, when she opposed liberalized relations with Cuba. Clinton now supports them, saying the economic sanctions failed to spur significant political change.
Sen. Bernie Sanders also backs lifting the embargo, which he says has cost American businesses billions of dollars in lost trade revenue.
Even if Clinton or Sanders is elected president, it still could prove difficult to end the economic sanctions against Cuba.
Most Republican lawmakers oppose lifting the embargo, and their party controls both the House and the Senate.
James Rosen: 202-383-0014; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose