Cuba’s desire to open its economy is stymied by refusal to cede control,
U.S. officials say
By Elizabeth Llorente Published November 02, 2015 Fox News Latino
NEW YORK, N.Y. – U.S. government officials who are playing a key role
in firming up ties with the Cuban regime and paving the road to more
open trade and travel, say that there have been important strides.
But they stressed that big challenges also loom – among the most
formidable is a reluctance by Cuban officials to loosen or cede control
over the way business is done on the island, and over telecommunications.
Alex Lee, the U.S. State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for
South America and Cuba, said at a symposium on Cuba on Friday in New
York City that undoubtedly there’s been “a profound shift in paradigm
in relation toward Cuba.”
“We have moved smartly … to initiate a variety of changes,” even amid
the restrictions posed by the decades-long trade embargo, Lee said. “The
regulatory changes are real significant…we identified areas we want both
countries to expand.”
Lee was one of the speakers at the conference called: “Cuba: The Year in
Review and a Look to the Future,” jointly organized by Americas
Society/Council on the Americas and the CAF Development Bank of Latin
America. Speakers included other U.S. government officials involved in
restoring U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties, professors from the University of
Havana and organizations that are helping U.S. businesses explore
opportunities on the island.
Lee spoke of discussions between the two countries about passenger ferry
service from South Florida to Cuba and about opportunities for
U.S.-Cuban business ventures in the area of telecommunications.
“We’ve seen some definite moves by the Cuban government in the
establishment of Wi-Fi on the island,” he said, while noting that such
technology remains financially prohibitive for most Cuban citizens.
“We’re getting very very close to establishing mail service between both
countries,” Lee added.
But U.S. officials and businesses want to see more direct dealings with
Cuban entrepreneurs, something that officials are not quite ready to
step aside in order to facilitate.
The Cuban government, Lee said, still clearly “prefers to channel all
business opportunities to state-run enterprises.”
He added, “American businesses will face challenges in operating in
Cuba. The Cuban government has things to do if it really wants to take
full advantage of the opportunities available.”
Cuban officials, as well as the growing number of Cubans who have
started, or want to start, their own businesses, have a great learning
U.S. Commerce Department General Counsel Kelly Walsh, who has made
several trips to Cuba to hold talks about trade and travel, said Cubans
have expressed a need for information and guidance with regard to U.S.
regulatory changes since restrictions have been eased by the Obama
Cuban entrepreneurs also have to learn the fundamentals about finances,
such as banking and credit, among other things, the speakers said.
Americans visiting Cuba, in turn, “had to learn about the role of Cuban
businesses and the Cuban government,” Walsh said, and the impact on the
evolving opportunities to conduct business between the two nations.
As for expanding access to, and opportunities in, telecommunications,
Lee said, “The Cuban government reaction has been fascinating.”
Cuban officials, Lee said, are “concerned and ambivalent about the
Internet” and opening up access to everyday residents.
“Part of that is the paradigm of control,” Lee said, adding that it
behooves Cuban leaders to “rethink what’s in their international interest.”
“There were circuitous conversations” about opening up the Internet in
Cuba, he said, which is essential to developing global business.
Cubans, however, are quite adamant about maintaining a level of control
over the activities of the island’s citizens on the Internet.
“There’s a push-pull in Cuba,” he said. “They’re divided over how
they’re going to open up.”
An economy professor, Ricardo Torres Pérez, at the University of Havana
said Cuba has made crucial steps to improve the economy, particularly
after going through dire times about five years ago.
“It took a great deal of energy to address it,” Torres Pérez said.
“We’ve achieved ambitious economic reforms. The mere fact that they’re
even talking about private businesses in Cuba and the Internet shows that.”
In an interview with Fox News Latino after his talk, Walsh said that for
now, “It’s not their goal to privatize their economy.”
“It’s a state-owned, state-planned economy,” Lee said.
“For U.S. businesses, it’s easier to work in a market-based economy.”
Emilio Morales, president of the Havana Consulting Group, said Cuba was
left with little choice but to change, and will have to keep adapting,
even against its instincts.
It began suffering major financial losses when the Soviet Union – a
longtime lifeline – broke up. Most recently have come the economic
problems and political instability in Venezuela, its most recent
financial donor, Morales said.
“Cuba has to open itself to the world,” he said. “It has to change its
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