FEB. 17, 2016
WASHINGTON — President Obama will travel to Cuba within weeks, a senior administration official said on Wednesday, making a historic visit as part of an effort to end more than a half-century of estrangement and forge normalized relations with a Cold War adversary.
The administration will announce the trip — the first by a sitting president in 88 years, when Calvin Coolidge visited — on Thursday as top Commerce, Treasury and State Department officials are meeting privately with their Cuban counterparts in Washington for talks aimed at expanding business ties between the two nations.
Opening the discussions on Wednesday, Penny Pritzker, the commerce secretary, called on the government of Cuba to open its economy to American business and investment, saying the Cubans must do more to help facilitate commerce after the thaw between the two nations.
Ms. Pritzker said her department had acted aggressively since Mr. Obama’s December 2014 announcement to pave the way for American companies to do business in Cuba, granting 490 authorizations amounting to $4.3 billion last year alone — a roughly 30 percent increase over the previous year.
“But we need help from the Cuban side,” Ms. Pritzker said. “The U.S. companies that are attempting to do business in your country continue to face challenges.”
She added: “Without specific changes on your side that allow the private sector to engage, our changes will not unlock the opportunities for the Cuban people that both of us want to see.”
Tha talks, which began in a wood-paneled library at the Commerce Department within view of the White House, represent the latest effort by the Obama administration to push forward with the policy shift the president set in motion just over a year ago. But the process is vastly complicated by the American statutory trade and commercial embargo that has been in place for decades and that only Congress can lift.
While the Commerce and Treasury Departments have moved several times to loosen restrictions on travel and trade, Rodrigo Malmierca, the foreign trade and investment minister of Cuba, said the onus was on the United States to remove the embargo, and on Mr. Obama to essentially defang the laws that compose it in the meantime.
“These measures have been positive and are in the right direction, but still they are not sufficient in terms of the lifting of the main obstacle that we still confront that is the blockade,” Mr. Malmierca, who was seated opposite Ms. Pritzker as the talks began, said in Spanish through a translator. “We are aware of the fact that the blockade can only be fully lifted with the actions in Congress,” he added, but, “we know that the executive has prerogatives which can be used in terms of the dismantling, trying to void the blockade.”
The regulatory discussions began on Wednesday, a day after the signing in Havana of an arrangement allowing scheduled direct flights between the United States and Cuba for the first time in decades.
American carriers can begin applying to the Department of Transportation to offer the service — up to 20 scheduled flights a day to Havana and 10 to each of nine other international airports in Cuba. The pact aims to substantially increase travel between the two countries, which are currently served by only about a dozen charter flights a day.
But even as Mr. Obama makes progress in his drive to forge closer commercial ties with Cuba, the process is hamstrung by sanctions that have left American businesses wondering what they are permitted to do. Mr. Malmierca said on Tuesday that he had heard from many American companies that want to establish businesses in Cuba but are ensnared in regulatory limbo, awaiting special licenses from the United States government.
“The problem that we face today is that many companies want to do business, but we need to create the conditions for them to access the Cuban market,” Mr. Malmierca said at an event hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
He repeatedly said that Cuba welcomed American investment and would not “discriminate” against United States companies. “Lifting the blockade is essential to advancing this,” he said.
On Wednesday, Mr. Malmierca called on Mr. Obama to do more unilaterally, including allowing the dollar to be used in transactions with Cuba. On Tuesday, he said the president should lift the ban against imports of top Cuban products like rum and cigars and end the prohibition against direct investment in Cuba.
Critics argue that with each move to foster better relations and American investment, the president is rewarding a dictatorial government that infringes on human rights and squelches democratic discourse.
But Mr. Obama has argued that the best way to put pressure on the Cuban government is to expose its citizens to American values and ideals and through diplomatic channels re-established last year when embassies reopened in Havana and Washington.
This week’s technical talks are the second time since Mr. Obama announced the opening with Cuba in December 2014 that Ms. Pritzker and Mr. Malmierca have come together with officials from their governments to try to harmonize some aspects of their business regulations. Ms. Pritzker traveled to Havana in October to begin the discussions, which have been made even more labyrinthine on the American side by the statutory embargo.
The Obama administration announced last month that it was relaxing more restrictions on business with Cuba, including allowing United States banks to provide direct financing for the export of any product other than agricultural commodities, which are still walled off under the embargo.