By Wilfredo Cancio Isla* (Café Fuerte)
HAVANA TIMES — The US Chamber of Commerce (USCC), one of the most powerful groups of political influence in the nation, will conduct a senior level trip to Cuba this month to explore the economic transformations undertaken by the government of Raul Castro.
Two members of the USCC, linked to the Cuba Working Group, confirmed that the trip will take place in May and that the delegation will be headed by Thomas J. Donohue, president of the organization and a strong supporter of lifting the US embargo on the island.
“The Chamber of Commerce is preparing this trip with a particularly keen interest in the economic and investment outlook in Cuba,” said a businessman who asked not to be identified. “I think it’s something that will have much impact in Washington.”
High Level Visit
The source said that in addition to Donohue the delegation will include American businessman Steve Van Andel, chairman of the board of directors of the giant Amway Corp. and current USCC vice president.
Contacted by Diario Las Americas, Tyler Hernandez, director of communications for the USCC, declined to give details on the exact date of the visit.
The high level USCC trip to Cuba comes at a crucial time for the Cuban economy, eyeing a possible expansion of trade ties with the United States. The Cuban government has launched the Mariel Special Development Zone and is about to implement a new Foreign Investment Law, which takes effect in June.
According to the sources, the visitors have planned meetings with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, Minister of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment, Rodrigo Malmierca, and Orlando Hernandez Guillen, president of the Cuban Chamber of Commerce, plus a tour of the Mariel complex.
The trip to Havana has as a context an event organized by the Chamber’s Cuba Working Group of in Washington.
Cabañas will speak to the business leaders
On 20 May, Cuban Independence Day, there will be a special presentation at the USCC headquarters by Ricardo Zuniga, special assistant to President Barack Obama for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council. A day later, on the same stage, Jose Ramon Cabañas, head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, is invited to speak.
The trip by the top USCC executives will be the first visit in more than a decade. In July 1999, during a three day stay in Havana, Donohue met with Cuban ministers and President Fidel Castro.
On that occasion, Donohue also spoke with representatives of a small sector of self-employed Cubans and predicted that a long road lay ahead to strengthen the private sector on the island.
“I suspect this will be more of a marathon than a short distance race,” Dohonue told reporters before leaving Havana on the trip 15 years ago.
And time proved him right. It was not until October 2010 that the Cuban government authorized more options for private work and three years later expanded the list of activities to 201. The official figure for self-employed workers is now 455,000 people (although it has not been made public how many of these have maintained their licenses).
It is no coincidence that those who accompany Donohue represent corporations tied to two pillars of the reforms applied by Raul Castro: the self-employed sector and agricultural production.
Critical of the embargo
Cuba has been forced to implement a reduction of the state payroll by almost a million workers and advocate for increased agricultural production to alleviate the impact of food purchases abroad, amounting to more than US $2 billion annually.
However, sales of agricultural products from the US to Cuba continued to plummet in 2013, reaching $ 348.7 million dollars, the lowest figure in the last seven years in the limited bilateral trade relationship.
Donohue is a fervent supporter of radically changing the map of relations between Washington and Havana by lifting restrictions on US citizens travel and the embargo on the island.
“In the interests of the two countries, it is time to turn the page… The embargo has failed and we are at a time of change,” said the businessman during a hearing before the US House of Representatives Appropriations Committee in 2009.
The US Chamber of Commerce represents the interests of over 300,000 direct business partners, and about three million businesses through its affiliates in state and local chambers. It is the main stronghold of lobbying at Congress, with an annual budget of $ 136 million for such efforts, higher than all other lobbying groups in Washington.
*Published in Spanish by Diario Las Americas