Associated Press | BY TRAVIS REED
Business leaders and Cuban government officials expressed frustration Thursday with Bush administration policies that have tightened restrictions on travel and commerce between the United States and the communist island nation.
About 30 executives gathered Thursday in Orlando for the first meeting of the Florida chapter of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association—the same group whose Mexico City gathering between Cuban officials and U.S. energy representatives in February was canceled after the U.S. government pressured a hotel to expel the Cubans.
The conference Thursday was intended to help Floridians better understand how to do business with Cuba.
It was neither protested nor interrupted, but rife with concern over present hostility.
‘‘They are afraid of the free exchange of ideas,’’ Dagoberto Rodriguez, head of the Cuban Interest Section in Washington said by teleconference. ``They are afraid of free contact between our two countries.’‘
He and several others said they doubted any restrictions would loosen before President Bush’s term ends.
Irving Wheeler, a Polk County citrus grower, said he was interested in shipping oranges to Cuba, but not right now.
‘‘Not for the next two years, at least,’’ he said, hoping for a different climate.
Molly Millerwise, spokeswoman for the U.S. Treasury Department, which enforces trade sanctions, said strong Cuba sanctions encourage democracy and hamstring a dangerous leader.
‘‘The sanctions against Cuba are aimed at hindering a desperate and repressive regime led by Castro while reaching out to the Cuban people,’’ she said.
The Bush administration last June imposed tougher sanctions aimed at squeezing the Cuban leader’s government, including restrictions on the flow of currency and limits on family visits by Cuban Americans.
The February meeting incident further inflamed tensions.
Kirby Jones, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association, said Thursday the trade association had held nine meetings in Mexico without a problem before the incident.
‘‘It took everyone by surprise,’’ Jones said, adding that the group would likely pursue non-American-owned hotels for future Mexico meetings.
Several entrepreneurs who have done business with Cuba since Congress began allowing sales of food and other agricultural products described the experience as positive, but procedural.
‘‘They speak English, they drive a hard bargain, they know what they’re doing,’’ said Bill Schroeder, president of Purity Foods. ``So anyone who thinks this is going to be a dumping ground for our products is mistaken. The learning curve can be pretty substantial.’‘
Schroeder said he was concerned political division was undermining commerce between the two countries. He said his company isn’t making too much money in Cuba now, but they’re banking on the future.
‘‘Our long-term goal is to be there when this thing turns,’’ he said. ``The people they’re going to be looking for and know are the people that were there servicing through the hard times, too.’’