Akin Gump, the nation’s largest lobby firm, is launching a new business unit aimed at advising firms looking to expand in Cuba.
The move is the latest effort by the international business community to increase its operations and consumer base on the island in the telecommunications, hospitality, agriculture, healthcare and other sectors.
Since President Obama’s December announcement that the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, advocacy and business groups lobbying for normalization have stepped into high gear, urging Congress to loosen restrictions on travel, agricultural sales, the export of telecommunications devices, and rules for ships traveling between the two countries.
Akin’s new group will advise companies on legal and lobbying strategy as they look to enter the Cuban market.
Akin Gump is the nation’s largest lobby firm by revenue, earning $35.6 million in lobbying fees in 2014. The law and lobby giant recently hired Anya Landau French as a senior adviser in the Cuba initiative, which will be led by Democratic lobbyist Scott Parven.
Parven lobbies on behalf of Samsung and Chevron, and is a bundler for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, raising $24,700 for Clinton in 2015. Landau French is the editor of The Havana Note, a blog documenting developments in U.S.-Cuba relations that often praises ending the embargo, and a former adviser on international trade issues to ex-Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).
“Given the president’s bold actions on Cuba, we’re hearing a lot of excitement at the CEO and [general counsel] level from our clients,” Parven said. “They are very excited and progressive about this, seeing it as a tremendous business opportunity. They’re seeing the long game. Companies want to make sure they’re doing everything right to enter the market the right way and establishing the right reputation.”
Many industry groups and corporations have long privately supported lifting the 50-year embargo with Cuba, and the administration’s formal push was followed by a flurry of renewed lobbying efforts.
But those sanctions would have to be lifted by Congress, where many Republicans vehemently oppose normalization with Cuba. Senate appropriators have approved measures to roll back some of the sanctions, but they’re not expected to pass both chambers. That makes it unlikely that any major sanctions relief will occur in the immediate future.
Some ad-hoc language has made its way through committee, however.
The House Appropriations Committee has approved a provision in the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development spending bill that would block new U.S. airlines and cruise ships from traveling to the island, and an amendment to the Commerce, Justice and Science spending bill that would prohibit exports to entities owned by the Cuban military.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved amendments to the 2016 spending bill that would lift the travel ban for one year, end the current 180-day waiting period for ships carrying food and medicine from the U.S. to Cuba, and allow Cuba to buy U.S. agriculture on credit instead of cash-in-advance.
The Engage Cuba lobbying coalition, which was formed in June to advocate for normalization, is gearing up to target a handful of states this fall — Iowa, Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas, all major exporters of agriculture. The coalition intends to meet with industry and civic leaders, seeking help in pressuring their lawmakers on lifting Cuba sanctions. The group sees Iowa as especially important because of the state’s critical role in the 2016 presidential election.
“We’re hoping we can start making inroads in the House over next couple months,” said James Williams, who leads Engage Cuba. “We’re hoping a deal can be struck to keep some of [the Senate amendments] in, but we know its going to be an uphill road.”
Mauricio Claver-Carone, head of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC — which opposes lifting sanctions unless the Cuban government undergoes democratic reforms — said the lobbying push to ease sanctions is trying to capitalize on “the perceived momentum the administration has created.”
“We are opposed to those efforts,” Calver-Carone said. “The fact is that the Speaker of the House has already said it’s not going to happen. The other side can push all they want, but they need floor time. Without the House, nothing is going to happen. They can huff and puff and play off what they perceive as momentum, but the fact remains in Congress, none of those efforts are going to gain traction.”