A cadre of U.S. business leaders and politicians joining President Barack Obama during his historic Cuba visit illustrates the allure the island nation has for commercial interests.
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will land in Cuba on Sunday evening, marking the first time in nearly 90 years that a sitting U.S. president will set foot there.
The two-day visit will include a meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro, brother of longtime leader and American foe Fidel Castro, and dissidents. But the trip and Obama’s broader push to restore ties is about more than opening embassies and burnishing his legacy in foreign affairs. It's also about opening another revenue stream for U.S. exports, corporations and states. Just days before Air Force One will touch down in Cuba, the Treasury and Commerce departments announced several changes that ease restrictions on trade and travel to Cuba. Those were just the latest administration moves to make it easier for Americans and U.S. firms to do business there.
One of the biggest names joining Obama will be Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott International. Marriott and Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which are in a merger process, reportedly have applied to Washington and Havana to start investing in Cuban businesses.
“We are optimistic that we are going to get a green light soon from the U.S. government to have hotels under the Marriott flag in Cuba,” Marriott spokesman Thomas Marder recently told USA Today.
Also making the trip will be lawmakers -- notably, female members such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who hail from leading agriculture states. They are anticipating gains should Congress lift a decades-old trade embargo on Cuba.
Klobuchar says it is important that Congress terminate the embargo “so that we can boost exports and create jobs in the United States.”
“After more than 50 years of failed policy, it is time to change course with Cuba,” she said in a statement. “Our historic visit ... is a major step forward. The next step is for Congress to pass our bipartisan legislation to lift the trade embargo so that more U.S. goods can be exported to Cuba.”
Also making the trip will be Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who has introduced legislation that would, according to her office, “help support and expand the export of agricultural commodities to Cuba from North Dakota and states across the country.”
For members like Heitkamp, Obama's trip represents a potential shot in the arm for farmers. And they see it as a bargaining chip in Washington’s efforts to force the Castro regime to address issues that irk the West.
“As I’ve long said, trade between our countries is a fundamental step toward strengthening human rights in Cuba,” Heitkamp said in a statement. “This trip will be a unique opportunity to keep up the fight for North Dakota producers, who rely on exports for their bottom line and know well that Cuba is a natural market for our state’s crops.”
The U.S. congressional delegation also includes Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, and Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn. The guest list is expected to grow.
On Wednesday, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters the White House anticipates “several dozen members of Congress” will join Obama in Cuba.
“And that will be a bipartisan delegation,” Rhodes said. “This has been an issue in which we’ve seen growing bipartisan support for the policy changes that we’ve pursued.
“I think the presence of those members of Congress sends the message that there is growing support in Congress to open up relations and lift the embargo or pieces of the embargo,” he said, adding there also will be “a significant number of American entrepreneurs and business leaders."
But Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., signaled that’s unlikely under his watch.
New commercial deals between U.S. companies and the Cuban regime will legitimize and strengthen the communist government, Ryan said Thursday.
Ryan noted the trade embargo passed by Congress in 1959 remains intact and is enforceable,. “Despite the president’s attempts to undermine this embargo by executive action, he is ultimately bound by it. It is the law of the land.”
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