Posted on Friday, 05.30.14
US Chamber head urges Cuba to open economy more
BY PETER ORSI
HAVANA — The head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a prescription
for communist-run Cuba’s struggling economy: less government control and
a heavier dose of the open market.
In a speech at the University of Havana, Chamber president and CEO
Thomas J. Donohue cautiously praised what he saw during a visit to
evaluate economic reforms that have hundreds of thousands of islanders
working independently of the state.
But he added that the challenge now is to consolidate and expand the
“We at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce believe in the power of private
enterprise to help societies progress and improve,” he said Thursday,
before heading back to the U.S. “And it is in that spirit that we come
to your country … and offer these observations.”
About a dozen business leaders arrived this week on the chamber’s first
trade mission to Cuba since 1999. During the visit they met with
entrepreneurs and government officials to talk about the reforms, which
President Raul Castro began in earnest in late 2010.
“We have come to Cuba to assess the seriousness of this effort and to
encourage and support it in any way we can,” Donohue said. “We’re trying
to engage Cubans of all walks of life and explain how private enterprise
can dramatically improve the lives of your citizens.”
State television reported Thursday night that Donohue met with Cuba’s
president. It showed images of the encounter, but did not say how long
it lasted or what they discussed.
About 455,000 islanders are currently running or working for private
small businesses as a result of the reforms, and about 450 new
non-agricultural cooperatives are operating autonomously.
“Their efforts to start their own businesses show that the spirit of
entrepreneurship and enterprise is alive and well in the hearts of many
Cuban citizens,” Donohue said. “And indeed, when that spirit is properly
encouraged and given the freedom to operate, the country as a whole can
do much better.”
Cuba has also decentralized a number of bloated state-run businesses and
undertaken a big port project west of Havana that seeks to turn the
sleepy fishing town of Mariel into a regional shipping hub. An adjacent
special economic zone aims to lure much-needed foreign investment.
Island officials say they are not abandoning the socialist principles
that have ruled here for more than 50 years, but rather are “updating”
Cuba’s model to perform better in a globalized economy.
Donohue disagreed with those back home who criticized the trade mission
by arguing it would be a mistake to strengthen commercial ties with Cuba
due to questions about its record on civil liberties and political freedoms.
He said the Chamber of Commerce takes human rights concerns seriously,
calling it an issue that should be part of a “constructive dialogue”
between the U.S. and Cuba.
He called for Washington to allow imports and exports of goods and
services involving a number of sectors in Cuba, saying it would be in
the interests of American citizens and U.S. business. He cited
telecommunications as one area with great potential.
Donohue said the chamber has lobbied for years to end the now
52-year-long U.S. economic embargo that bars most commerce between the
two countries. Some exceptions exist for food and agricultural goods,
but as Cuba turned to other partners such trade has fallen by nearly
half in recent years to about $509 million in 2012, the most recent year
for which officials figures are available.
“Changes take time, but if (President Barack Obama) wants to get it done
before the end of his term, he’s got two years,” Donohue said. “And it’s
going to take a while to do it, so he’ll have to get busy.”
Peter Orsi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter-Orsi
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