Obama seeks ways to ensure that Cuba thaw survives his presidency

Obama administration officials are resigned to the fact that the embargo against trade with Cuba will not be lifted during President Obama’s final months in office. But the administration is setting in motion a series of rule changes that they hope will break down trade barriers and make it impossible for a future president to reverse warming relations.

“The reality is we’re very much stuck with the embargo,” Alex Lee, deputy assistant secretary for South America and Cuba for the U.S. State Department, told a group of business leaders Thursday during an all-day seminar on trade in Washington. “The embargo has required us to be involved in this regulatory change process. It’s almost like a Rubik’s Cube to figure out what we can do that meets the president’s goals.”

The White House already has taken several steps to loosen the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. It’s relaxed travel restrictions, eliminated limits on remittances and restored direct mail. In January, the Obama administration announced it was allowing American companies to sell to Cuba on credit.

Next on the agenda, Lee said, is negotiating ways to ease concerns raised by American businesses that have investigated Cuba but are nervous about specific issues: how to protect their investment if conditions in Cuba change; how to make it possible for U.S. companies to do their own hiring rather than having to go through the government; persuading the Cuban government to remove the surcharge it imposes on the use of U.S. dollars, and lifting Cuban government restrictions that limit private sector import/export business.

One of the key ways the administration hopes to make certain the warming in relations remains permanent after Obama leaves office is encouraging travel to the island, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told a forum for business leaders and academics interested in Cuba on Thursday.

He noted that the number of Americans traveling to Cuba has risen 54 percent in the last year and predicted that that number will continue to grow with the approval in coming weeks of 110 commercial flights daily between the United States and Cuba.

He added that Airbnb, the online vacation booking service, touts Cuba as its fastest growing market.

“And that has a direct benefit to the Cuban people,” he said. “Because when travelers go to Cuba they stay in Cuban homes. And they eat at cuenta-propistas restaurants run by cuenta-propistas” – the Cuban term for self employed.

Difficult to go back

That increased travel will make it difficult for Congress or a succeeding administration to take steps to go back to the hostility that ruled U.S.-Cuban relations for two generations, Rhodes said.

“I don’t know how many people who I know, what they really want to know is ‘when can I go to Cuba,’” Rhodes said. “Ultimately, it becomes difficult for Congress to say, ‘well, you can’t. You, American traveler, can’t go to Cuba. You, American business, can’t go to Cuba.’”

Lee said the benefits of better relations can be seen already. He said U.S. and Cuban diplomats are talking like never before. They formed a bilateral commission that’s met twice – and plans to meet three more times this year – to discuss further engagement in areas of health, environment, disaster mitigation and law enforcement.

“One of the fruits of the law enforcement dialogue is basically we have opened up channels for Interpol,” Lee said. “And we can exchange information almost immediately on important cases we’re both interested in cooperating on.”

The change in relations was underscored by the White House announcement Thursday that President Obama will become the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years. The trip to Havana in March is part of ongoing efforts kicked off Dec. 17, 2014, when Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro announced that they would take steps to normalize relations.

But the meeting where Rhodes and Lee spoke may have been a more enduring sign of rapidly changing relations between the two former adversaries. Present were Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack, who touted future prospects in Cuba to tourism, health care and agriculture professionals.

Also in attendance at the forum was Rodrigo Malmierca Diaz, Cuba’s minister of foreign trade and foreign investment, and Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A powerful new lobbying group, the Cuba Consortium, led by former Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, hosted the event.