Cuba has pent up demand for trade and U.S. companies are eager to tap a new export market.
U.S. and Cuban officials said they made good progress during a fourth round of talks last week on how to establish full diplomatic relations. Some obstacles remain, but opening of respective embassies in Havana and Washington, D.C., could happen in the coming weeks.
U.S. businesses and ports from Texas to Virginia, are closely watching developments because they see Cuba and its 11.5 million inhabitants only 90 miles off the tip of Florida as a new opportunity for trade.
One of the U.S. demands is that U.S. diplomats be allowed to move freely around the island and talk to ordinary Cubans. The authoritarian Cuban government is concerned about such contacts could empower dissenters.
“We made great progress and I remain optimistic that we will conclude, but (there are) still some things to work out,” Assistant Secretary of State Robert Jacobsen said at a press conference on Friday.
A stepping stone to opening a Cuban embassy was reached when the United States found a small Florida bank, Stonegate, that was willing to open a bank account for the Cuban embassy to process Visa applications, salaries and handle other financial transfers.
Congress is currently reviewing the Obama administration’s decision to remove Cuba from the State Department’s list of countries that support terrorism, which will go into effect May 29 if no further action is taken.
American attitudes toward rapprochement with Cuba have softened in recent years, according to opinion polls, but many lawmakers still oppose the closer ties.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a critic of the Obama administration’s new policy, said at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week that Cuba has not done enough to improve human rights.
“I have deep concerns that the more these talks progress, the more the administration continues to entertain unilateral concessions without – in return – getting agreement on fundamental issues that are in our national interest,” said Menendez.
“I have not seen any movement toward greater freedom for the Cuban people. I have not seen movement toward greater tolerance, democracy, or the rule of law. Human rights abuses continue unabated with more than 1,600 cases of arbitrary political rests this year,” he added.
President Obama in January loosened some restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba for very narrow categories of activity, but a free flow of trade will require Congress to end the 50-year-old embargo on Cuba.
Since 2000, the sale of humanitarian goods, such as agricultural and food products, to Cuba has been permitted.
Doing business in Cuba will not necessarily be easy for American companies, however, because of anti-capitalist laws, including restrictions on foreign direct investment and an employment tax for hiring local workers. Other countries free to trade with Cuba have only done so on a limited basis because of these challenges and limited purchasing of foreign goods and services by government procurement offices.