U.S. Businesses Look To Cuba, But See Limited Opportunities So Far | KUOW News and Information

U.S. Businesses Look To Cuba, But See Limited Opportunities So Far

Dec 27, 2015
Originally published on December 28, 2015 11:39 am

When the U.S. and Cuba reopened their embassies this year, American businesses started to look for opportunities on the island. They are quickly learning, though, that it will be a tough slog.

John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, took a deep dive into the numbers and found that if you "make two columns and you have what the U.S. has gained and what Cuba has gained, Cuba has gained far more during the last year than has the U.S."

U.S. agricultural sales have been dropping steadily, falling by 37 percent, while U.S. travel to Cuba skyrocketed and U.S. dollar outflows were up 150 percent.

Even in the area of telecommunications, a priority for the Obama administration, U.S. companies have little to show but a couple of roaming agreements on the island.

That might benefit U.S. visitors, but it is a far cry from what Secretary of State John Kerry told a prominent Cuban blogger in Havana in August.

"We want every person in Cuba to be able to be connected," Kerry said, adding, "Our companies are very anxious to become involved in Cuba in helping to create that connectivity."

The Obama administration must be disappointed by the results, says Kavulich. Still, he predicts President Obama will continue to ease restrictions on Cuba so it will be harder for the next U.S. president to change course.

"Unfortunately, because of that, and because the Cuban government knows he wants to go to Cuba and they know he wants to create this landscape that can't be changed, Cubans, being good negotiators ... are basically sitting back and waiting for more," Kavulich said in an interview with NPR.

He would still like Obama to visit Havana to serve as the "gardener in chief," helping commercial ties take root so that American companies will become stakeholders in this new approach to Cuba.

Human Rights Issues

Ana Quintana, of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank, disagrees.

If the purpose of this new policy is to empower the Cuban people, she argues, there should be no commercial exchanges with the Cuban military or intelligence services.

"That's not at all what has been done. The new areas that have been opened for commercial exchanges have been directly through the Cuban government," she said.

If Obama wants to visit Cuba in 2016, he should meet first with some of the dissidents whose rights have been eroded even as diplomatic ties were restored, Quintana says.

She doesn't see the U.S. making human rights a priority, though Kerry says that is what he is doing. On his one-day stop in Havana, Kerry told reporters traveling with him that the U.S. and Cuba won't have normal ties unless Cuba is "moving with respect to issues of conscience."

Obama, meanwhile, told Yahoo News he would go to Cuba if there's progress in the area of human rights.

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CARRIE KAHN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Rachel Martin is away. I'm Carrie Kahn. A year ago, two old adversaries took the first steps toward a new relationship. Last December, President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro decided to move past five decades of hostilities and restore diplomatic ties. In 2016, Obama may even visit the island. NPR's Michele Kelemen brings us up to date and tells us just what a presidential visit could accomplish.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The president of U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council likes to look at the numbers to see what's really happening in relations. John Kavulich says U.S. sales in health care products rose dramatically this year while agricultural sales continued to fall.

JOHN KAVULICH: U.S. visitors to Cuba are up anywhere from 50 to 57 percent. Dollar outflows to Cuba up 150 percent. Make two columns and you have what's the U.S. gained and what's Cuba gained, Cuba has gained far more during the last year than has the U.S.

KELEMEN: Even in the are of telecommunications, a priority for the Obama administration, U.S. companies have little to show but a couple of roaming agreements on the island. That might benefit U.S. visitors but it's a far cry from what Secretary of State John Kerry told a prominent Cuban blogger in Havana in August.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KERRY: We want every person in Cuba to be able to be connected. We have offered to and we will help in every way possible to help provide that connectivity. Our companies are very anxious to become involved in Cuba in helping to create that connectivity.

KELEMEN: The Obama administration must be disappointed by the results so far, says Kavulich, the head of U.S.-Cuba Trade Council. Still, he sees President Obama continuing to ease restrictions on Cuba in 2016 so that it will be harder for the next president to change course.

KAVULICH: Unfortunately, because of that and because the Cuban government knows he wants to go to Cuba and they know that he wants to create this landscape that can't be changed, Cubans being good negotiators, they're basically sitting back and waiting for more.

KELEMEN: That's not to say President Obama shouldn't go, he adds.

KAVULICH: He should go for the primary reason that he is the chief marketing officer of the United States.

KELEMEN: Not so fast, says Ana Quintana of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. She's urging the administration to tread carefully.

ANA QUINTANA: If the purpose of this new policy is to empower the Cuban people, I think it needs to be codified into law, that specifically these new commercial exchanges shall not be with the Cuban military nor Cuba's intelligence services. We need to do it directly with the Cuban people. And that's not at all what's been done. The new areas that have been opened for commercial exchanges have been directly through the Cuban government.

KELEMEN: And if President Obama wants to visit the island, she says he should consider meeting first with some of the dissidents whose rights have been eroded even after diplomatic ties were restored. She doesn't see the U.S. making human rights a priority, though Secretary Kerry says he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KERRY: There's got to be some progress is the context of human rights because you can't normalize without that. There's no way Congress is going to vote to lift the embargo if they're not moving with respect to issues of conscience. And we've been very clear about that.

KELEMEN: Kerry calls it a two-way street. President Obama told Yahoo! News recently he'd like to go to Cuba if there's progress in the area of human rights. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.