Business leaders cheer 'positive step forward'

U.S. business groups expressed support on Wednesday for the White House's plan to break down decades-long barriers with Cuba.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was among the groups that said President Obama’s plans to start the process of implementing full diplomatic relations with Havana would create an economic boost in both countries.

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“We deeply believe that an open dialogue and commercial exchange between the U.S. and Cuban private sectors will bring shared benefits, and the steps announced today will go a long way in allowing opportunities for free enterprise to flourish,” said Chamber President Thomas Donohue.

Donohue said that, during a trip to Cuba earlier this year, it was noticeable that Havana has moved to reduce government control over private-sector businesses, allowing for growth on the island.

"There is still work to do, on both sides of this relationship, but the changes outlined today are a substantive and positive step forward," Donohue said

"It is imperative that the Cuban government build on today’s positive steps with a more ambitious economic reform agenda at home, while we continue to push for the end of the embargo here in Washington."

Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC), called the decision "truly strategic" arguing that the steps taken will boost the free flow of information into Cuba.  

"Restoring normal diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba will foster U.S. interests culturally, commercially and regionally. It is past time to bring down the walls," he said. 

But Reinsch argued that the changes are not expected to promote "an immediate bonanza for American exporters."

As far as timing, Julia Sweig, director of Latin America Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, said that it is quite possible the Obama administration is aiming for the Summit of the Americas in April to have the new policies at least partially in place. 

“My gut says that a lot of the regulatory framework they need to liberalize trade and travel, if not fully, is probably close to being teed up," she said on a conference call with reporters.

But that probably means a gradual increase in investment opportunities for U.S. businesses instead of an immediate influx. 

"I don't think we're going to see broad-scale American investment on the island the day after tomorrow," she said.

Still, she argued it should allow for more growth in areas already licensed between the two countries lke agriculture and telecommunications and help the United States to get more people on the ground there to expand services such as banking and credit card use. 

Those changes should set up a framework and create the "political space" to eventually end the embargo but "I think we're awhile away from that," she said. 

Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, said Wednesday that as far as trade between the two nations, the president has taken "substantial steps" in an effort "to relax some of the restrictions that were in place in a way that would facilitate greater trade, greater economic activity between the United States and Cuba."

Jake Colvin, NFTC vice president for global trade issues, said the next steps are up to Congress.

"It can either show that politics stops at the water’s edge, or insist that the walls of the Cold War still exist," he said. 

Earnest said that the White House does believe Congress should take the "necessary action to remove those restrictions to facilitate the kind of openness and engagement that we believe will lead to greater progress in terms of advancing American national security priorities.” 

This story was updated at 5:20 p.m.