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A year ago today, the U.S. business community welcomed the announcement by Presidents Obama and Castro that they would normalize relations between our two countries.
As we look back over the past year, it's easy for those who oppose engagement to point out the many things that haven't changed. The reality is that the Cuban government still has many steps to take and milestones to reach as this process unfolds. However, we are seeing tentative steps toward creating a freer and more open society in Cuba — and that is worth celebrating.
On the commercial front today, Cubans have greater access to the Internet than ever before, with 43 pay-for-wireless zones throughout the country, with prices dropping to about $2 per hour. The Cuban government also sees the need to reduce government control or ownership of Cuban businesses, with more than 500,000 Cubans now employed in the private sector — an increase of 240 percent in the past six years. According to Cuban statistics, the first six months of 2015 saw a 127 percent increase in the number of registered hotel and restaurant cooperatives, as well as 81 percent growth in the number of registered manufacturing cooperatives. And, new regulations exist in Cuba that correctly recognize the need for a more transparent and predictable business climate.
The Cuban people are having more opportunity to directly engage with the American people than ever before. In the first 7 months of 2015, 54 percent more U.S. citizens exercised their right to travel to Cuba under general licenses.
Finally, on the diplomatic front, embassies have opened. As Secretary of State John Kerry noted at the flag-raising ceremony for the U.S. Embassy in Havana, "Having normal relations makes it easier for us to talk, and talk can deepen understanding even when we know full well we will not see eye to eye on everything." Additionally, the U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission now allows the U.S. government to speak directly with Cuban government officials on a variety of priority issues.
Five decades of unilateral sanctions failed to bring change to Cuba, but it's already clear that engagement is bringing slow-but-steady change.
The U.S. Chamber's new U.S.-Cuba Business Council is urging the Cuban government to build on these positive steps with a more ambitious economic reform agenda at home, including liberalizing the labor market, unifying the dual currency system and providing training to entrepreneurs, among others.
Back in Washington, our elected leaders need to support the American business community by continuing to reform rules and regulations impacting trade and travel. In addition, Congress must re-evaluate the reasons the U.S. implemented the embargo and its consequences for the Cuban people, bilateral ties and U.S. interests across the Americas.
Change is always difficult, but engagement trumps isolation every time. While restoring U.S.-Cuba ties will be a work in progress for years to come, the first green shoots show real promise.