U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue said yesterday that a visit to Cuba by members of the business group opens the door to further communications with the island nation's small corps of entrepreneurs.
Donohue, who just returned from a three-day visit that included a nearly seven-hour meeting with Cuban President Fidel Castro, said he doesn't expect Cuba to embrace capitalism, noting that the handful of private businesses there were created purely out of economic necessity.
"It's not an easy road to travel, but it is an important road to travel," Donohue said of what are expected to be continuing efforts to help foster private enterprise in Cuba.
The visit by Donohue, whose organization represents 3 million U.S. businesses, was granted a license by the Clinton administration as part of what an administration spokesman described as an ongoing effort to help the Cuban people while isolating Castro's regime.
Trade with Cuba has been embargoed for 37 years. The chamber and other business interests have called for ending unilateral trade embargoes against Cuba and other nations, and Donohue reiterated the call to ease trade relations with Cuba yesterday.
"The appropriate time is now," he said.
The rationale for easing restrictions on trade is that it will help foster democracy and economic development. But businesses in the United States and elsewhere are also interested in Cuba's considerable natural resources and in the potential market for tourism there.
The Clinton administration has allowed limited trade in food and medicine but not broader trade and tourism.
Donohue, who was clearly charmed by Castro, described the Cuban leader as "a very smart person and very strong in his convictions."
He said that they discussed the importance of the Internet and said Castro was very aware of the potential impact of a surge in tourism, of the increase in the free flow of information and of the changes in other economies in the hemisphere.
Noting that capitalism isn't free of regulation, Donohue said, "There are more bureaucrats in the U.S. regulating free enterprise than there are Cuban citizens. . . . I offered to trade him lawyers for cigars, but I couldn't get a deal."