White House Explores Ways To Do Business With Cuba

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A bus with the Cuban and U.S. flags is seen on a beach in Havana earlier this month. The White House is exploring regulatory changes to provide new opportunities for American citizens and U.S. businesses in Cuba. (AFP/Getty Images)
A bus with the Cuban and U.S. flags is seen on a beach in Havana earlier this month. The White House is exploring regulatory changes to provide new opportunities for American citizens and U.S. businesses in Cuba. (AFP/Getty Images)

The Obama administration is considering ways to further ease travel and trade restrictions on Cuba. There is still an embargo in place and it would take an act of Congress to lift that.

The president, however, does have ways to make it easier for Americans to go to Havana or to sell goods there. A lot has changed already since the White House announced its new approach last year.

Washington, D.C., lawyer Robert Muse managed to get a U.S. government license to start ferry services to Cuba. He describes the process this way:
"As Ernest Hemingway wrote about going bankrupt, it happened both slowly and then suddenly. I had applied for the license several years ago and it just sat there in a kind of policy void."

Once President Obama announced an opening with Cuba late last year, everything changed. "Out of the blue," Muse says, "suddenly the license was granted."

That doesn't mean this is a done deal. Cuba still has to agree to allow ferries to bring people and goods from Miami. But at least on the U.S. side, he says, it is getting easier to get licenses, especially for sales to Cuba's small, but emerging private sector.

"That could be anything from a pizza oven to restaurant lighting to napkins and chairs. Anything you could think of. So the authority exists," Muse says.

He'd like to see the Obama administration go further to boost trade. So would Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, who has taken U.S. lawmakers and others to Cuba for many years.

"One thing that we are seeing is that many of these companies, U.S. companies that are going down to learn what they can about the market and Cuban priorities are coming back and applying for licenses and getting them," Stephens says.

She's asked the Treasury Department to change the regulations for travel, too, to make it easier for individuals to go — as long as they are on educational, cultural, religious or family visits, as required by U.S. law.

"If individuals are going to Cuba, the money they are spending is going directly into the hands of individual Cubans and that's really the goal," Stephens says.

Not so says Frank Calzon of the Center for a Free Cuba.

"The folks who travel to Cuba today are subsidizing the Cuban military and the security forces because the Cuban travel industry is completely controlled by the Cuban military. That's a fact," he says.

Despite warmer relations with the U.S., he says Cuban authorities still routinely round up and beat up dissidents. He argues that having more Americans going to Cuba or doing business there won't improve things for average Cubans.

"The contrary happens," Calzon says. American corporations that are in Cuba become lobbyists of the Cuban dictatorship because they are afraid of what the Cuban government can do to their investment.

Calzon argues that President Obama has already gone too far to undermine an embargo that was put in place by Congress.

But Muse, the D.C. lawyer, says the president can still carve out exceptions, and should before he leaves office.

"The president can leave the U.S. embargo on Cuba like a piece of cheese that's far more holes than cheese," he adds.

The White House will only say that it "continues to explore regulatory changes to provide new opportunities for American citizens and U.S. businesses."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Obama's administration has been considering its next steps in improving relations with Cuba. Embassies, of course, have reopened in Washington and Havana this summer, but a U.S. trade embargo remains. It couldn't go away without an act of Congress. The administration could take other steps, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Washington, D.C., lawyer Robert Muse managed to get a U.S. government license to start ferry services to Cuba. He describes the process this way.

ROBERT MUSE: As Ernest Hemingway wrote about going bankrupt, it happened both slowly and then suddenly. I had applied for the license several years ago and nothing happened, it just sat there in a sort of policy void.

KELEMEN: Once President Obama announced an opening with Cuba late last year, everything changed.

MUSE: Then out of the blue, suddenly the license was granted.

KELEMEN: That doesn't mean this is a done deal. Cuba still has to agree to allow ferries to bring people and goods from Miami. But at least on the U.S. side, he says, it's getting easier to get licenses, especially for sales to Cuba's small but emerging private sector.

MUSE: That would include everything from a pizza oven, to restaurant lighting, to napkins, and chairs and anything you can think of. So the authority exists.

KELEMEN: He'd like to see the Obama administration go further to boost trade. So would Sarah Stephens, at the Center for Democracy in the Americas, who has taken U.S. lawmakers and others to Cuba for many years.

SARAH STEPHENS: One thing that we're seeing is that many of these companies - U.S. companies that are, you know, going down to learn what they can about the market and about Cuban priorities - are coming back and applying for licenses and getting them.

KELEMEN: She's asked the Treasury Department to change the regulations for travel too, to make it easier for individuals to go as long as they're on educational, cultural, religious or family visits, as required by U.S. law.

STEPHENS: If individuals are going to Cuba, the money they're spending is going directly into the hands of individual Cubans, and that's really the goal.

KELEMEN: Not so, says Frank Calzon of the Center for a Free Cuba.

FRANK CALZON: The folks who travel to Cuba today are subsidizing the Cuban military and the security forces because the Cuban travel industry is completely controlled by the Cuban military. That's a fact.

KELEMEN: Despite warmer relations with the U.S., he says, Cuban authorities still routinely round up and beat up dissidents. And he argues that having more Americans going to Cuba or doing business there won't improve things for average Cubans.

CALZON: The contrary happens. American corporations that are in Cuba become lobbyists of the Cuban dictatorship because they're afraid of what the Cuban government could do to their investment.

KELEMEN: Calzon argues that President Obama has already gone too far to undermine an embargo that was put in place by Congress. But Muse, the D.C. lawyer, says the president can still carve out exceptions and should before he leaves office.

MUSE: The president can leave the U.S. embargo on Cuba like a piece of cheese that's far more holes than cheese.

KELEMEN: The White House will only say it, quote, "continues to explore regulatory changes to provide new opportunities for American citizens and U.S. businesses."

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.