Policy shift follows grueling lobbying push

Policy shift follows grueling lobbying push

President Obama’s decision to craft a more open relationship with Cuba comes as a victory for business interests and humanitarian advocates alike, both of which have long tried to poke holes in a 50-year-old embargo.
  
Both types of groups have spent years urging the U.S. to loosen restrictions on Cuba, underscoring how popular opinion has shifted away from the hard-line approach that Washington has taken since the days of Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

“The coalition that is for this change is broader and more vocal than many of those people who are against it,” said Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA), which applauded Wednesday’s move.

In all, hundreds of business groups, ranging from the powerful Chamber of Commerce to corporate titans like Caterpillar, urged the U.S. to ease up on Cuba.

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Business leaders see breaking down the barriers between Washington and Havana as a way to open a new market just 90 miles from American shores. They’ve sought the sort of changes announced Wednesday for more than 15 years, dating back at least to when then-Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in January 1998.
 
The Clinton administration did pare back some restrictions on humanitarian aid in the months after the pope’s visit. But the pope’s first day in Cuba also happened to coincide with the breaking of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, undercutting the corporate community’s efforts for a more open Cuba.

Obama signaled movement on the issue in his first year in the White House, taking action to allow U.S. residents to visit relatives in Cuba.
 
Businesses like Caterpillar, meanwhile, have continued their efforts to gain a foothold in Cuba. Caterpillar, the distiller Bacardi, General Cigar Holdings and the insurance giant Chubb are among the interests that recently lobbied on the issue.
 
Bill Lane, the director of Caterpillar’s Washington office, said there was no doubt that the Cuban market had good potential for a maker of backhoes and bulldozers.
 
“Right now, Cuba doesn’t need to rebuild its infrastructure. It needs to build its infrastructure,” Lane told The Hill. “Everything we build in the U.S., Cuba needs.”
 
Still, Lane said the company needed to take more of a wait-and-see attitude, to see if Cuba made the sort of democratic and economic changes that American businesses believe are necessary.
 
Under the agreement announced Wednesday, the U.S. will reduce travel restrictions to Cuba, and limits on both imports and exports to the country. Americans visiting Cuba will be allowed to use credit cards there, and U.S. telecommunication companies will get a chance to improve Internet infrastructure on the island. Cuba also released Alan Gross, an American contractor imprisoned there for five years.
 
Bacardi, which was founded in Cuba more than 150 years ago, is taking a similar approach after being forced to leave the island shortly after Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
 
The company said Wednesday that it was “proud of its Cuban roots” and has “the utmost respect and sympathy for the Cuban people with whom we share a common heritage.”
 
“We hope for meaningful improvements in the lives of the Cuban people and will follow any changes with great interest,” the company added. “In the meantime, we continue to support the restoration of fundamental human rights in Cuba.”
 
Groups like #CubaNow, which promotes a more open society in Raúl Castro’s communist regime, have been formed more recently, in an attempt to build on previous efforts from Obama to tamp down tensions with Cuba.

#CubaNow and other advocates, like the AS/COA, have said they’re trying to capitalize on both modest reforms implemented by the Castro regime and the strong popularity for normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba. As part of their efforts this year, #CubaNow launched a campaign that included advertisements in the Washington Metro system.
 
Top congressional Republicans and potential 2016 candidates like Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense: Tillerson, Trump deny report of rift | Tillerson says he never considered resigning | Trump expresses 'total confidence' in secretary | Rubio asks Army to kick out West Point grad Rubio asks Army to kick out West Point grad with pro-communist posts GOP establishment doubts Bannon’s primary powers MORE (R-Fla.) lashed out at Obama’s decision Wednesday. Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezOvernight Health Care: House passes 20-week abortion ban | GOP gives ground over ObamaCare fix | Price exit sets off speculation over replacement You want to recall John McCain? Good luck, it will be impossible Poll: Most in NJ want Menendez to resign if found guilty MORE (D-N.J.), the son of Cuban immigrants, also sharply criticized the White House.
 
But according to Gallup, a majority of Americans have favored normalizing relations with Cuba over the last 15 years — with as many as two-thirds of adults wanting more diplomatic ties in some years.
 
The push on Cuba also illustrates the, at times, strange marriage between humanitarian advocates and business interests, both of which have said that outside investments and more economic freedom can better the lives of those living under totalitarian regimes.
 
Caterpillar’s Lane pointed out that dozens of businesses and nonprofits are already part of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, which seeks to use increased prosperity as a diplomatic tool.
 
“We have a shared objective on these things,” Lane said.