WASHINGTON._ Even though the blockade imposed by the United States on Cuba remains fully in force and that the U.S. is facing the complex internal policy issues resulting from an election year, the two countries aim to enhance their trade relations.

In the second half of February, Cuba’s Foreign Trade and Investment Minister Rodrigo Malmierca, fulfilled a large agenda in Washington D.C., where he reiterated that the economic, financial and commercial blockade imposed on Cuba for more than fifty years is the main obstacle in bilateral relations.

At the Chamber of Commerce, the Cuban minister met with its president Thomas Donohue and vice presidents Myron Brilliant and Jodi Bond, as well as with business people, including representative of leading companies in the tourism, biotechnology, machinery and food sectors.

He also opened, together with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, the second round of regulatory talks, a bilateral mechanism intended to discuss business possibilities and their scope amid the executive measures announced by President Barack Obama to change the blockade policy.

Ever since the announcement on December 17, 2014 by Presidents Raúl Castro and Obama about the process to normalize bilateral relations, the White House chief has announced three packages of executive decisions, the most recent one in late January which will impact on the finance and travel sectors.

During his U.S. visit, Malmierca praised these executive actions but noted they are still insufficient, because the blockade’s main prohibitions continue and the decision to lift it is in the hands of Congress.

“We know Congress must act and we are aware of the political implications of this issue; however, the president has authority to go far beyond that,” he said in one of the meetings he attended, accompanied by officials from the Cuban Ministries of Foreign Trade and Foreign Affairs, the Central Bank, the Chamber of Commerce and other Cuban entities.

Obama can exercise his prerogative to annul prohibitions such as those related to the use of the U.S. dollar in transactions with the island, to access to the U.S. market for Cuban products’, and the possibility for U.S. companies to invest in Cuba.

Pritzker said there are many U.S. business people interested in gaining access to the Cuban market, something that is prevented by the blockade policy. However, Obama’s measures are beginning to open possibilities.

According to the Secretary of Commerce, the objective of the second round of regulatory talks is to learn more from each other and identify areas in which Washington could approve new licenses for U.S. companies interested in doing business on the island.

Malmierca also had talks with the U.S. Secretaries of State, John Ferry, and Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, respectively, the U.S. Trade Representative, Michael Froman, the governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, and the leader of the U.S.-Cuba Business Council (USCBC), Carlos Gutiérrez.

Gutiérrez urged U.S. companies interested in entering the Cuban market to demand the lifting of the sanctions against the island.

“The greater the number of U.S. companies interested in the Cuban market, the greater the pressure exerted on Congress,” he told The Havana Reporter.

The economic, commercial and financial blockade of Cuba became law with the approval of the Helms-Burton Act in 1996; hence, the decision to bring it to an end lies with Congress, which is polarized between Democrats and Republicans.

According to Gutiérrez, the ongoing election race ahead of the November presidential elections hinders all efforts for getting the sanctions annulled by Congress.

“It would be hard for Congress to vote in favor of eliminating them all, so it seems easier to do so step by step; but it must happen,” the USCBC leader said and he called for advantage of the current rapprochement phase between the countries to be taken in order to convert the search for better relations into an irreversible process.

“It’s necessary to have more investment opportunities and transactions approved, and that the harmonious work between the two governments continues. This way, it would be harder for anyone to come and say it’s all over,” he sustained.

During his meetings, Malmierca referred to the possibilities that Cuba offers as a market, namely its stability, qualified labor, geographical location, and achievements in sectors like tourism, biotechnology and pharmaceutics.

The vice president of the Americas for the International Division of the U.S.

Chamber of Commerce, Jodi Bond, warned that the blockade places U.S. companies at a disadvantage with regard to other companies in the world when it comes to a market as promising that of Cuba.

“Foreign competitors can easily access the Cuban market, but we do not know when we will have those same opportunities,” she stressed.

Two transcendental events for bilateral relations took place when Malmierca visited Washington: the signing in Havana of an agreement for the resumption of direct flights between the two countries, and the announcement on Obama’s visit to Cuba on March 21 and 22.

The White House described the president’s announced visit to Cuba as historic, as it will be the first one made by a U.S. president in almost 90 years.

Obama’s assistant Ben Rhodes noted the objective of the visit is to make the ongoing process for the normalization of bilateral relations irreversible.

“We are very excited; nothing could help bring the two countries closer than this trip to Havana,” he said.

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