What Cuba needs from the United States

As tens of thousands of euphoric Cubans greet President Obama and his family in Havana on March 21, the President will be doing more than solidifying a new era in U.S.-Cuban diplomatic relations. He also will be inaugurating what has the potential to become a mutually beneficial trade and business partnership – an enterprise that, given sufficient time, will spur jobs and growth in both countries.

Realizing this potential, however, has two imperatives. First and foremost, the U.S. Congress must end the disastrous trade embargo that has served only to hurt the Cuban people, hamstring American companies and undercut our reputation and credibility throughout the world. Second, U.S. private and public leaders must recognize that this new dynamic is very much a two-way street. The U.S.-fueled acrimony that has characterized our bilateral relationship must be replaced with one attribute prized by the Cuban people: mutual respect.

Congress' refusal to sweep aside the last vestiges of the embargo has made trade with Cuba a one-way boon for foreign companies, many of which stand to realize substantial profits from increased U.S. travel alone. Until this myopic boycott is ended, U.S. businesses will continue to be handcuffed; an unfortunate reality that will hurt multiple sectors of our economy – from travel, tourism, hospitality, and transportation to agriculture, medical products, telecommunications, and technology.

Although recent amendments to applicable regulations have created limited openings for some business sectors, U.S. regulators and businesses appear to be unduly focused on expanding one-way opportunities for selling U.S. goods to Cuba. Instead of seeking short term profits by attempting to sell goods into a market already starved for capital, U.S. businesses should be looking for import and investment opportunities that will create a robust U.S. trading partner over the longer term.

In the interim, therefore, the U.S. should be partnering with Cuba to strengthen its infrastructure and accelerate the development of native products that could be exported to the U.S. and other markets. Cuba has much to offer U.S. consumers and businesses, from exquisite travel destinations to organic agricultural goods and pharmaceuticals.

It's clear from the extensive discussions I've had with Cuban officials in recent years that what is needed most is an infusion of capital from U.S. companies and investment firms, along with an insurance and trade framework to support such investments. Investment dollars from the U.S. will provide much needed technology in many sectors and will help Cuban farmers cultivate the crops they need to become self-sustaining and profitable – a key to Cuba transforming its economy.

The same exigency exists in the travel and tourism industries. It's true that modest progress has been made in recent months, which soon will result in the limited revival of airline and potentially ferry travel between the U.S. and Cuba. Still, only an influx of new capital will enable the Cuban tourism and travel industry to ensure that it can properly accommodate tourists, including Americans, in meaningful numbers. Indeed, the Obamas will be among the many thousands of U.S. visitors expected to travel to Cuba every day this year. Estimates from those in the Cuban hotel industry are that more than 60 percent of the guests at major hotels in Havana these days are Americans.

In the not-too-distant future, Cuban consumers will be eyeing American goods and services. And U.S. travelers will be hopping on planes and boats to enjoy one of the most unique and hospitable cultures in our hemisphere.

Until then, the most important export the U.S. can provide Cuba is capital – and the perspicacity to know that capital investment will stimulate our economy as well as Cuba's. The "race" that we'll be running on this two-way street is a marathon, not a sprint.

Commentary by Scott D. Gilbert, the managing director of Reneo Consulting LLC and the attorney whose pro bono work was instrumental in freeing American aid worker Alan Gross from a Cuban prison, paving the way for normalization of relations between the two countries.

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