Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker completed on October 7 her two-day visit to Cuba as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to establish business ties with the island communist republic. Following the 1959 revolution that installed brothers Raul and Fidel Castro in power, Cuba banned all private enterprise while seizing property. The U.S. has ever since enforced a trade embargo on Cuba, which became a perennial Cold War enemy.
Following President Barack Obama’s initiative last year to open up bilateral relations, U.S. businesses have been anxious to know how to profit from tourism on the island, for example, as well as agricultural exports. The warming of relations, said Pritzker in Havana, may mean that increased economic activity may be in the offing. The number of U.S. citizens visiting the island has spiked, while cruise ship companies and airlines are anxious to get started. In August, Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Cuba to officially open the American embassy there. One of the projects where Cuba hopes for investment is a major shipping hub at Mariel, about 30 miles from Havana, where $1 billion has already been ventured.
"The government officials I have met with have been very forward leaning and wanting more American direct investment," Pritzker told CNN. "We obviously have limitations under what we can do under our own laws. So we are trying to find places where we can do things together now."
Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodriguez
However, socialist bureaucracy remains a stumbling block, said Pritzker. Currently, all foreign companies operating in Cuba must contract their employees through the state-run agencies. Foreign investment is also limited. "We don't understand how is it that you hire people, how does it work?" she said. "Imagine if you are a business owner. You want to hire who you want to hire." Appearing to expect that her Cuban interlocutors will assist the lame-duck Obama administration in convincing Congress to lift the embargo, Pritzker said "How do we do more together to show the U.S. Congress there's a reason to lift the embargo?" Only Congress can lift the embargo that has been in place for more than 40 years.
Pritzker said that Cuba’s communist economy is “quite unique.” She added that she came to understand Cuba’s legal and regulatory system so that she can explain it to American business people.
In Havana, before leaving, Pritzer called on Cuba to work towards more open relations with the U.S. “We want to help Cubans to become part of the world economy and enjoy a better standard of living, but also to give the people of the United States an opportunity to learn about Cuba and develop relationships with people on an island that is only 90 miles from the coast.” On the second day of her visit, at the opening of a forum in which representatives from the U.S. departments of Treasury, Commerce and State participated, Pritzker said “We want to build a more open relationship between our two countries.”
Referring to the steps already taken by the Obama administration to increase trade between the U.S. and Cuba, Pritzer said in a news conference, “We do not pretend that these measures will change the lives of Cubans overnight," adding that "we can build a more open relationship between our two nations." She also said “The fact is that in the U.S., there is still much ignorance on the Cuban economy, in order to understand it fully, and that's why I'm here…I'm also here to inaugurate the regulatory dialogue."
"We do not pretend that these measures will change the lives of Cubans overnight," said Pritzker, adding that "we can build a more open relationship between our two nations."
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