A top Obama administration official on Wednesday called on the government of Cuba to open its economy to American business and investment, saying the Cubans must do more to help facilitate commerce after a historic thaw between the two nations.
Penny Pritzker, the secretary of commerce, said her department had acted aggressively since President Barack Obama’s 2014 announcement to pave the way for American companies to do business in Cuba, granting 490 authorizations amounting to $4.3 billion last year alone — a roughly 30 percent increase from the previous year.
“But we need help from the Cuban side,” Pritzker said Wednesday as she opened a round of technical talks with Cuban officials and experts from the Commerce, Treasury and State departments. “The U.S. companies that are attempting to do business in your country continue to face challenges.”
She added: “Without specific changes on your side that allow the private sector to engage, our changes will not unlock the opportunities for the Cuban people that both of us want to see.”
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The talks in Washington represent the latest effort by the Obama administration to push forward with the policy shift the president set in motion just over a year ago. But the process is vastly complicated by the U.S. statutory trade and commercial embargo that has been in place for decades, which only Congress can lift.
The Commerce and Treasury departments have acted several times to loosen restrictions on travel and trade. But Rodrigo Malmierca, the foreign trade and investment minister of Cuba, said the onus is on the United States to remove the embargo and on Obama to essentially defang the laws that compose it in the meantime.
“These measures have been positive and are in the right direction, but still they are not sufficient in terms of the lifting of the main obstacle that we still confront that is the blockade,” Malmierca, who was seated opposite Pritzker as the talks began, said in Spanish through a translator.
“We are aware of the fact that the blockade can only be fully lifted with the actions in Congress,” he added, but “we know that the executive has prerogatives which can be used in terms of the dismantling, trying to void the blockade.”
The regulatory discussions began Wednesday, a day after the signing in Havana of an arrangement allowing scheduled direct flights between the United States and Cuba for the first time in decades.