WASHINGTON, DC – The US Chamber of Commerce (USCOC) has just wrapped up a week-long trade mission to Cuba to get a first-hand look at changes in Cuba’s economic policies, develop a better understanding of the country’s current business environment and the state of its private sector.
The mission was led by USCOC President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue, who was joined by Steve Van Andel, chairman of the U.S. Chamber’s Board of Directors and of Alticor Corporation, and Marcel Smits, CFO of the Cargill Corporation and other mission members for meetings with a number of entrepreneurs, private cooperatives, government officials, academics, and religious leaders.
The mission’s findings, he said, will be reported “to lawmakers, our members, and the American business community.”
The USCOC has long advocated normalizing US-Cuba relations, including a lifting of Washington’s 50-year embargo, pointing to Cuban President Raul Castro’s efforts to jump-start the country’s stagnant economy with a series of unprecedented economic reforms.
Despite the fact that the island opened to limited foreign capital in 1995, Cuba has actually seen a significant drop in foreign investment and sluggish economic growth over the past decade. The economy grew by only 2.7 percent last year, far below the government’s goal of 7 percent.
While almost half-a-million Cubans have obtained licenses to operate small, private businesses, Cuba’s economy is still seen as highly centralized, inefficient and over regulated.
In March, the country’s National Assembly responded by unanimously approved what Castro called a “modernization bill” aimed at radically liberalizing the Communist-run island’s foreign investment rules.
Among other provisions, the new investment law slashes taxes on profits from 30 percent to 15 percent; gives new investors eight years of exemption from paying taxes; speeds-up the approval process for foreign investors; provides added legal protection for foreign investors; and cuts taxes on investments in most sectors to 15 percent, although special conditions will be set for investment in natural resources.
Before the trade mission left for Havana, Donahue told the media that, “We want to learn more about these reforms, determine if they have brought about real and lasting changes, and find ways to encourage Cuba’s budding private sector.”
The trade mission, the first to Cuba by the USCOC in 15 years, drew sharp criticism from the Cuban community in the US, which accuses the Castro regime of continuing to persecute political opponents in violation of international law.
Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), chairman of the senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a press interview that political opponents continued to be arrested “without justification” in Cuba and that “such conditions hardly seem an attractive opportunity for any responsible business leader.”
Havana, he added, “unjustifiably jails foreign business leaders and breaks international labor standards” and that he “questions the merits of engaging a government controlling almost all the country’s economic activity.”