US Policy Shift on Cuba

Pete Souza / White House

The process of normalizing diplomatic relations and expanding trade between the United States and Cuba is proceeding slowly, but holds great promise for U.S. businesses, a group of experts said Monday.

In the panel discussion, organized by the Inter-American Dialogue and held at the Washington office of law firm Holland & Knight, experts expressed optimism that the historic thaw between the Cold War foes will continue and will present opportunities for U.S.-based companies in areas such as agriculture and travel.

“The moral imperative is there, and the business imperative is there, and the political imperative is there,” said Devry Boughner Vorwerk, vice president of corporate affairs at international food conglomerate Cargill and chair of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba.

The United States should continue relaxing restrictions on exports to Cuba in order to allow U.S. agricultural producers to sell more to the island nation, said Vorwerk. “It’s quite a shame that U.S. farmers have their hands tied behind their backs when [Cuba] is such a natural market for us.”

Wayzata, Minn.-based Cargill has been exporting food products to Cuba for several years under humanitarian export rules, but Cuba holds even greater potential for it and other food producers, said Vorwerk, who added that the relatively small size of Cuba’s population would not make it an insignificant trade partner. “Eleven million people is certainly a market,” she said.

In the panel discussion, Phil Peters of the Alexandria, Va.-based Cuba Research Center said he sees hope for a further relaxation of trade restrictions with Cuba despite opposition from Republicans who now control both chambers of the U.S. Congress. Exporters are increasingly seeing opportunities to sell products to Cuba and are likely to put increasing pressure on lawmakers to ease restrictions, said Peters.

“I choose to be optimistic,” he said. Congressional Republicans, particularly those from Florida such as Sen. Marco Rubio, have vowed to fight the Obama administration’s push to ease restrictions on Cuba, saying Cuba’s leaders violate human rights and that easing restrictions will only strengthen the country’s communist government.

Also on Monday’s panel was Jonathan Epstein, a partner at Holland & Knight, who said the law firm has seen swelling interest in doing business with Cuba from companies in industries including travel and technology. “The floodgates have opened,” since the Dec. 17 announcements from U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro that the countries would move to normalize diplomatic relations for the first time in more than five decades, said Epstein.

The nearly $7 billion in outstanding claims against Cuba from U.S. citizens and businesses relating to property seized following the Cuban Revolution is a “hurdle,” said Epstein. He added that a lack of clarity about the types of financial activities in which U.S. companies will be allowed to engage with Cuba and regulations they would have to follow have been “vexing” for U.S. banks and has kept them from moving toward doing business with the country, said Epstein.