Businessman Trump urged to keep U.S.-Cuba detente going

Reuters News
Posted: Dec 07, 2016 10:05 AM

By Matt Spetalnick and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican and Democratic U.S. lawmakers joined Cuban entrepreneurs on Wednesday to urge President-elect Donald Trump to continue President Barack Obama’s engagement with Havana, despite Trump’s threat to end detente with the island.

"There is bipartisan support for moving forward," said Democratic Representative James McGovern, at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol where four small business owners who had traveled from the communist-ruled country also appealed to Trump, as a businessman, to support continued opening.

More than 100 Cuban small business owners sent a letter to Trump on Wednesday urging him not to roll back Obama's rules to ease restrictions on travel, trade and investment and toward more normal diplomatic relations.

The appeal to Trump from Cuba's fledgling private sector underscored increased uncertainty about future relations between the two former Cold War foes, given his vow to halt what he called Obama’s "deal" with Havana unless it agreed to new terms with Washington.

Obama administration officials, seeking to further cement changes before Trump takes office on Jan. 20, were due to hold talks with Cuban counterparts in Havana on Wednesday. It was the first such meeting since the election of Trump and the death of Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro.

Appealing to Trump's roots as a real estate developer, the Cuban entrepreneurs wrote, “As a successful businessman, we’re confident that you understand the importance of economic engagement between nations.”

“Additional measures to increase travel, trade and investment … will benefit our companies, the Cuban people and U.S. national interests,” they wrote. “We look forward to taking advantage of any openings that your administration makes to the Cuban private sector and the Cuban economy as a whole.”

The letter, organized by Cuba Educational Travel, a U.S. company that arranges trips to the island, and coordinated with the Washington lobbying group Engage Cuba, was signed by startup companies and small-scale entrepreneurs. They included family-owned restaurants, high-tech firms, car services and hair salons.

"A lot of what we've been able to achieve is because of the links between the U.S. and Cuba," Yamina Vicente, who owns Decorazon, a party planning and decorating business, in Havana.

"Trump is a businessman and I hope that he will understand," she said.

The Obama administration has pressed for additional U.S. business deals in Cuba in hopes of making detente irreversible. U.S. businesses fear a reversal of Obama’s opening could cost them hundreds of millions of dollars.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd and Norwegian Cruise Line said on Wednesday they had received approval from Cuba's government to operate cruises to the island and would soon be announcing itineraries.

Obama and President Raul Castro announced a breakthrough in diplomatic relations nearly two years ago. Since then, ties have been restored, and Obama has used executive actions to ease some business and travel restrictions, although the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress has resisted removing the broader U.S. embargo.

Trump has said Obama should have cut a "better deal," echoing critics who have said Cuba was given too many concessions. At a campaign rally in Miami, Trump said he would seek to reverse Obama's moves unless Cuba allowed greater freedom. The Cuban government so far has mostly refrained from commenting on Trump's statements.

U.S. supporters of detente have said it is improving Cubans' lives while opening cracks in the socialist system.

Raul Castro started introducing market-style reforms in 2011. Cuban entrepreneurs have complained, however, that more changes are needed. Private businesses still have no access to wholesale stores and can only import or export via government agencies. internet service on the island are also extremely limited.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington and Sarah Marsh in Havana; Editing by Toni Reinhold and Andrew Hay)