New York Times, FEB. 17, 2016


Original Article: Expanding Business Ties

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

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.

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