Cuba embargo under pressure as Obama urged to lower barriers
By Bill Faries and David Lerman, Bloomberg News
11:20 p.m. CDT, May 29, 2014
MIAMI — A political consensus against trade with communist Cuba that has
prevailed in Washington for half a century is showing signs of cracking.
As the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the world's biggest
business lobby, visits the Caribbean island this week, support is
growing for an easing of trade restrictions and an increase in academic
and cultural exchanges.
While few are advocating a full lifting of the embargo or the
restoration of diplomatic relations, almost four dozen former government
officials, retired military officers and business leaders wrote an open
letter to President Barack Obama this month urging him to ease some
In another indication of the shifting mood, Cuban-American sugar
producer Andres Fanjul — part of a family long associated with support
for the embargo — signed the letter, which asks Obama to use his
presidential powers to authorize more import and export licenses, among
"This is a moment to act," Fanjul, executive vice president of the West
Palm Beach, Fla.-based Fanjul Corp., said in an interview. "It's
important to expand opportunities to build relationships between the
American and Cuban families."
Supporters of further easing the 52-year embargo by executive order see
a window of opportunity after the U.S. midterm elections in November,
said Carl Meacham, director of the Americas program at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"You're seeing, slowly but surely, a ratcheting up of the pressure,"
said Meacham, who served as the senior adviser for Latin America and the
Caribbean on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The window for
action starts with the election and finishes around the first quarter of
The momentum for change was on display on Thursday, when Tom Donohue,
president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber, gave a speech
at the University of Havana aimed at encouraging economic change in Cuba
and an eventual lifting of the trade embargo. He was to be accompanied
by Steve Van Andel, chairman of Amway and Marcel Smits, chief financial
officer of Cargill.
Donohue's visit to the island, his first in 15 years, came after the
Cuban government passed a law this year to attract more foreign
investment and President Raul Castro eased travel restrictions on
Cubans, including some dissidents.
"Through the new investment law, Cuba is inviting foreign partners to
invest in new sectors of the economy," Donohue said in prepared remarks.
"Approval of the law suggests that Cuban leaders understand what a
powerful tool for economic development and job creation foreign direct
investment can be."
Citing in particular a change in attitudes toward the embargo "among
younger generations of Cuban-Americans," Donohue called on Obama to
"create new avenues for imports and exports of goods" and services,
"starting with Cuba's new private sector."
Obama has acted on Cuba before, reversing some restrictions put in place
by his predecessor, George W. Bush, after taking office in 2009. Obama's
moves were denounced by lawmakers such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of
Florida, a Cuban- American Republican, who hasn't wavered in her
opposition to any easing of sanctions against the regime in Cuba, 90
miles from Florida.
Having outlasted 10 U.S. presidents so far, Cuba's Castro brothers are
approaching their 90s. Raul Castro, 82, has vowed to step down after his
term ends in 2018, while 87-year-old Fidel Castro is seldom seen in
Longtime Cuba watchers such as Wayne Smith say the approaching end of
the Castro regime, shifting political dynamics in the Cuban-American hot
spot of Florida, amid generational change, and an eagerness among some
in the U.S. business community for trade have combined to make an
"It shows the way the thing is moving," said Smith, a former U.S. chief
of mission in Havana who served as executive secretary of President John
F. Kennedy's Latin American Task Force a half-century ago. "Fewer and
fewer people are sticking with the old policy. There's a lot of momentum."
The Obama administration continues to weigh how best to encourage
positive change in Cuba, according to a State Department official who
asked not to be identified discussing policy deliberations. The U.S. has
taken steps to encourage greater access for Cubans to the Internet and
social media and has started talks with the Cuban government to set up
direct mail service between the countries, the official said.
The biggest obstacle to any White House movement on Cuba may be Sen.
Robert Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants who is chairman of the
Foreign Relations Committee.
In advance of Donohue's speech, the New Jersey Democrat wrote a letter
criticizing him for reaching out to a Cuban government that Menendez
said "jails foreign business leaders without justification, violates
international labor standards, and denies its citizens their basic rights."
"Such conditions hardly seem an attractive opportunity for any
responsible business leader," Menendez wrote.
Another barrier is Cuba's continued imprisonment of former U.S.
government contractor Alan Gross, who was arrested on spying charges in
2009 after taking telecommunications equipment to the island.
Source: Cuba embargo under pressure as Obama urged to lower barriers -