A dozen of the country’s leading business organizations, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Thursday that President-elect Barack Obama should at least initiate the process of scrapping Washington’s 46-year-old economic embargo against Cuba.
“We support the complete removal of all trade and travel restrictions on Cuba,” the groups said in an open letter to Obama. “We recognize that change may not come all at once, but it must start somewhere, and it must begin soon.”
Complaining about draconian restrictions on journeys to the communist-ruled island, the organizations said it was “simply wrong” that U.S. citizens were free to travel to North Korea or Iran but not to Havana.
They also urged the future president to make it easier for U.S. firms to take advantage of limited exceptions to the embargo that permit Cuba to purchase food and other necessities from the United States.
Havana has repeatedly made the same request in recent months as Cuba struggles to recover from the effects of three hurricanes.
Obama promised during the campaign that he would scrap Bush administration regulations sharply limiting the ability of Cuban Americans to visit their homeland or send money and goods to family members on the island.
While the Democrat said on the stump that he would not end the embargo, his victory in last month’s election has fueled calls to normalize ties between Washington and Havana.
The author of the text sent to Obama, National Foreign Trade Council Vice President Jake Colvin, said Thursday that he had circulated a similar letter a year ago but found few organizations willing to sign.
This time around, the missive was signed by the Chamber of Commerce, American Farm Bureau Federation, Business Roundtable, National Retail Federation and Grocery Manufacturers Association, among others.
The document cites a 2001 government report that estimated the Cuba embargo was costing U.S. exporters up to $1.2 billion annually in lost sales.
Colvin’s letter also points out that the U.S. Treasury Department devotes far more resources to enforcing the Cuba embargo than to tracking the finances of Al Qaeda.
Just last month, Treasury imposed a fine of more than $12,000 on Internet travel agency Priceline.com for offering its services to Cuban citizens, the letter said.
Obama would need congressional approval to completely dismantle the embargo, though he could use executive orders to ease the restrictions.
A poll released this week shows that 55 percent of Miami’s Cuban Americans say the United States should end the economic embargo, while 65 percent say Washington should re-establish diplomatic ties with the island.
The strong support for lifting the embargo reflects a change in South Florida’s Cuban-exile community, which has traditionally backed keeping the sanctions in place until the communist government in Havana frees political prisoners and embraces democracy.
Florida International University’s Institute for Public Opinion Research interviewed 800 Cuban-American adults for the survey.
The poll showed a sharp division by age group, with 65 percent of respondents between 18 and 44 saying they opposed the embargo, while 68 percent of those 65 and over expressed support for keeping it in place.
In response to a question about whether there would be “great political change” in Cuba, some 29 percent of respondents said it would likely occur in the next two to five years, while 25 percent ruled out any change as long as the Castro brothers held on to power.
Fidel Castro, who is 82 and still convalescing from a serious illness that struck him in July 2006, formally resigned the Cuban presidency early this year in favor of his younger brother, Gen. Raul Castro.
Though anxious to revitalize Cuba’s economy and raise living standards, Raul has given no indication he plans to loosen the Communist Party’s grip on power.
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