New Talks Begin With Cuba on Expanding Business Ties
By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVISFEB. 17, 2016
WASHINGTON — Top Obama administration officials will open a round of
talks on Wednesday in Washington aimed at expanding business ties
between the United States and Cuba, pushing forward on President Obama’s
directive to seek normalized relations, even while the American embargo
continues to bar most trade and commerce between the two nations.
The regulatory discussions, to be hosted by Penny Pritzker, the commerce
secretary, and attended by Cuban officials and their counterparts from
the departments of Commerce, State and Treasury, come after the signing
in Havana on Tuesday of an arrangement allowing scheduled direct flights
between the United States and Cuba for the first time in decades.
American carriers can begin applying to the Department of Transportation
to offer the service — up to 20 scheduled flights per day to Havana and
10 to each of nine other international airports in Cuba. The pact aims
to substantially increase travel between the two countries, which are
currently served by only about a dozen charter flights a day.
But even as Mr. Obama makes progress in his drive to forge closer
commercial ties with Cuba, the process is hamstrung by sanctions that
have left American businesses wondering what they are permitted to do.
Rodrigo Malmierca, the Cuban minister of trade and foreign investment,
said on Tuesday that he had heard from many American companies that want
to establish businesses in Cuba but are ensnared in regulatory limbo,
awaiting special licenses from the United States government.
“The problem that we face today is that many companies want to do
business, but we need to create the conditions for them to access the
Cuban market,” Mr. Malmierca said in Washington at an event hosted by
the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
He repeatedly said that Cuba welcomed American investment and would not
“discriminate” against United States companies. “Lifting the blockade is
essential to advancing this,” he said.
With the Republican-controlled Congress unlikely to lift the embargo
soon, Mr. Malmierca called on Mr. Obama to do more unilaterally,
including allowing the dollar to be used in transactions with Cuba,
lifting the ban against imports of top Cuban products like rum and
cigars and ending the prohibition against direct investment in Cuba.
Critics argue that with each move to foster better relations and
American investment, the president is rewarding a dictatorial government
that infringes on human rights and squelches democratic discourse.
But Mr. Obama, who has said he wants to travel to Cuba before leaving
office, has argued that the best way to put pressure on the Cuban
government is to expose its citizens to American values and ideals and
through diplomatic channels re-established last year when embassies
reopened in Havana and Washington.
This week’s technical talks are the second time since Mr. Obama
announced the opening with Cuba in December 2014 that Ms. Pritzker and
Mr. Malmierca have come together with officials from their governments
to try to work out the complex details of harmonizing some aspects of
their business regulations. Ms. Pritzker traveled to Havana in October
to begin the discussions, which have been made even more labyrinthine on
the American side by the statutory embargo.
The Obama administration announced last month that it was relaxing more
restrictions on business with Cuba, including allowing United States
banks to provide direct financing for the export of any product other
than agricultural commodities, which are still walled off under the embargo.