Two years after US President Barack Obama started moves to normalise relations with Cuba, his push for economic ties is showing few results.
There is just a trickle of trade between the two countries and at Cuba’s biggest trade fair this week in Havana some US company representatives said they are not hopeful about getting business in an environment that is uncertain and challenging.
But others pledged to continue to try to become established in what they regard as a rich new market for US products.
Michael Berkoff, CEO of BevMax, thinks patience and persistence will eventually pay off for those willing to undergo the hardships of doing business there: “Some companies have walked. We are here for the long-term, we like doing business with Cuba, we like the people here in Cuba, we think it’s a great opportunity going forward.”
Cuba blames the lack of progress on the remaining provisions of the decades-old trade embargo that Obama cannot get the Republican-controlled US Congress to lift.
The trade minister Rodrigo Malmierca complained: “Cuba is willing to move towards the normalisation of relations with the United States, but we regret that they continue betting on trying to change the economic and social model the Cuban people have freely chosen, adopting measures that have declared political and interventionist purposes.”
He told attendees at the International Fair of Havana: “The obstacles come from the North Americans, they are the ones who have to remove them. The measures President Obama has taken are in the right direction, they are good measures. But they are insufficient. They maintain the blockade (trade embargo), especially in the financial sector, it’s more profound than ever.”
US businesses have said the Cuban government’s monopoly on imports and exports as well as the sale of most goods inside the country makes life difficult.
The Trump factor
Donald Trump becoming president could further complicates matters, though the US Chamber of Commerce is more focused on the US Congress.
Reuben Smith-Vaughan, who is Director, Americas at the US Chamber of Commerce and head of the US-Cuba Business Council, said: “I think no matter which presidential candidate you have, ultimately the embargo rests with the Congress, so it’s going to be on us to continue to engage in a pragmatic conversation with our elected officials in Congress to talk about why the embargo is no longer an effective tool.”
That makes the November 8th elections important for Havana as they could decide if Republicans lose control of the US Congress.
As for Trump, if elected he has threatened to reverse all Obama’s changes allowing trade with Cuba unless, “the Castro regime meets our demands”, without saying what those demands would be.