Dalia Gonzalez (Progreso Weekly)
HAVANA TIMES — After Dec. 17, many have climbed on a wagon of change that seems unstoppable. In the United States, politicians, business leaders and organizations are pressing intensely to bring together the two shores of the Straits of Florida.
That is the objective of Engage Cuba, a promising lobby based in Washington. Its president, James Williams, agreed to answer — via e-mail — some questions from Progreso Semanal.
How was the idea of Engage Cuba born?
Two years before founding Engage Cuba, I worked as an advisor to a group of philanthropists dedicated to changing the status of U.S.-Cuba relations.
We campaigned with the objective of pressing the Executive Branch to take some sort of action in that sense, like what we saw on Dec. 17, when President Obama announced that his administration would reestablish diplomatic relations with the island, expand the possibility of travel and authorize a certain degree of commercial exchange, among other issues.
During those two years behind the scenes, we carried out surveys, financed advertising and supported organizations that shared our goal of modifying that Cold War policy of the United States toward Cuba.
During this period, we found that most Americans, including Cuban-Americans oppose the embargo and support travel to the island.
The President’s announcement was an important first step, but now Congress has to act. Engage Cuba plans to take advantage of the irreversible momentum created by Dec. 17 urging legislators to put an end to a 50-year policy that has demonstrated being ineffective and antiquated.
How does Engage Cuba plan to work with Congress to promote a change in policy?
We have retained important lobbyists for the purpose of lifting the ban on travel and broaden trade between our countries.
As elected officials, the members of Congress have the responsibility to represent pubic opinion, and in the case of U.S. policy toward Cuba the consensus is clear among Americans: 72 percent of registered voters believe that expanding travel, trade and diplomatic relations will produce better results than isolation.
To guarantee that those opinions be heard in Congress, Engage Cuba will mobilize business leaders, approach local, national and international communications media and provide data that highlight the benefits of eliminating the restrictions on commerce and travel.
We are aware of the dysfunctions that currently plague Congress, regardless of issue. Nevertheless, we trust that a collective and consistent message from a coalition of businesses and NGOs will show that the best thing for the interests of Americans and Cubans is to put an end to the embargo.
After Dec. 17, several bills on Cuba have been introduced in Congress. Two of them are particularly important: the first proposes to eliminate all travel prohibitions, and the second proposes to lift some of the blockade restrictions dealing with trade. Do you think that there is any chance that they’ll be approved in the near future?
We are confident in the momentum that exists in terms of lifting of the travel restrictions. The statistics speak for themselves. Just in the past five months a record number of Americans have visited Cuba, with a 36 percent increase between January and May. Americans have made clear their desire and the legislators are taking note of that.
On the other hand, companies dealing with a broad variety of sectors — agriculture, health, telecommunications, construction, pharmaceutical industry — have expressed great interest in the opportunities in Cuba.
For example, agricultural groups understand that Cuba imports 80 percent of its food. It is estimated that the economic benefits of an opening in trade could reach $6 billion and create thousands of jobs in the United States.
Besides, the country’s main construction companies have issued statements in support of an end to the embargo. Caterpillar, a manufacture-and-construction company, said: “Commitment, instead of isolation, can provide a strong incentive for change, to the benefit of Americans and Cubans.”
Certainly, the expansion of trade between our countries will be beneficial for the citizens of both sides of the Straits of Florida. We are confident that the collective support of industries will push the legislators to open channels for commerce.
How difficult will it be to eliminate the blockade completely?
We are not naive about the challenges regarding the entire framework of the embargo, but when we notice the pace of the change we are wholeheartedly optimistic.
The embargo has been in place for five decades, and in only five months we have taken significant steps toward the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, the relaxation of travel restrictions and the elimination of Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism.
The wind is in our favor. The links between our countries are historic, and the benefits are much too evident to allow an outdated policy to determine our future.