Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. are calling on President Biden to ease restrictions on Cuba that impact the island’s private sector.
In a letter sent Wednesday, the lawmakers urged the president to boost the economic exchange between U.S. and Cuban entrepreneurs by taking “risk-based, targeted efforts, including narrow changes to U.S. licensing and regulations.”
The aim is to promote the growth of Cuba’s small and medium-sized private enterprises, give them greater access to U.S. financial services and increase U.S. exports to the island.
Easing restrictions on trade and travel would “increase demand for U.S. commodities and make it easier for U.S. exporters to reach the Cuban market, benefiting American workers, farmers, ranchers, and businesses that comprise the thriving U.S. export sector," they said in the letter, first obtained by NBC News.
The senators also stated that more trade and investment would provide a "counterbalance" to China, "which has shown an increasing interest in the island nation’s finances."
The letter included recommendations such as allowing transactions between U.S. financial institutions and Cuban banks that are determined to be “civilian-managed”; encourage Cuba’s government to end the requirement that all U.S. imports go through government channels; and publish specific regulations or guidance to support internet access in Cuba.
Wyden, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, met with Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel during a trip to the island in December, after which he called on the Biden administration to normalize trade relations with Cuba and to strengthen support for small and medium-sized businesses. He previously had introduced a bill to end the embargo and set up new trade relations.
A small delegation of U.S. lawmakers also traveled to Havana in November and met with senior Cuban government officials.
The letter sent Wednesday started by criticizing the U.S. embargo on Cuba, saying it “has neither facilitated regime change, nor advanced any notable improvements in human rights, democracy or economic freedom in Cuba" and has taken away opportunities for American businesses and farmers. Earlier this month, another bipartisan group of senators also introduced a bill to end the embargo.
“To be clear, we continue to have serious concerns about the Cuban government’s repression of peaceful, pro-democracy advocacy,” the letter stated. “We strongly support your Administration’s efforts to hold the Cuban government accountable for violations of human rights, civil rights and worker rights, including forced labor.”
But the U.S. embargo can only be lifted by Congress, and lawmakers on both sides have long resisted to the idea, including Cuban American Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who chairs the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
In 2021, communist-run Cuba lifted a ban on private companies that had been in place since the late 1960s, when the government nationalized all enterprises and banned private property. The regulations currently in place give greater legal certainty to small and medium-sized businesses: Enterprises with more than three workers can establish themselves as “limited liability” companies, but they still have limitations on the number of workers they can hire and the fields they can operate in.
Areas like education, health, defense and waste management are off-limits. Cuba’s Economy Ministry has greenlighted 7,225 companies so far.
Most of Cuba’s socialist-style economy was run by the government until the 1990s, when Fidel Castro allowed small businesses in a very limited number of areas to operate under heavy regulation.
Allowing enterprises is part of economic reforms under the leadership of President Miguel Díaz-Canel in an attempt to improve conditions on the island.
Cuba’s economy, stagnant for decades, has been battered by the Covid pandemic, high inflation and the decades-old U.S. embargo. The situation has led to shortages in food, medicine, fuel, and at times, power throughout the island.
Historic islandwide protests broke out in July 2021, leading to a heavy crackdown. In fiscal year 2022, a record-breaking number of people fled Cuba, with over 220,000 arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The senators' letter noted that supporting the private sector could reduce the number of Cubans seeking to migrate to the U.S. “due to lack of hope for a better future.”
Engagement between the U.S. with Cuba, including talks on migration and law enforcement issues, has seen an increase since late 2022. There has also been a step-up in the number of cultural exchanges at the U.S. Embassy in conjunction with Cuba’s government.