(CNN)President Donald Trump has announced changes to our policy of expanded engagement with Cuba. These new changes are not a complete rollback, but they are a setback.
Americans agree that we need to encourage — rather than discourage — engagement with Cuba. Seventy-three percent of Americans want more engagement with Cuba — not less. Why? Doing business with Cuba is good for America. It’s that simple.
American business owners get it. Take the turkey growers from my home state who are hopeful that income growth among Cubans will lead to higher demand for American poultry. Or the farmers throughout the Midwest who want to export their crops to Cuba.
There are US tech companies that want to help Cubans connect with the world, American manufacturers who want to sell their products to help upgrade the Cuban economy, and of course the US travel industry that wants an even playing field to compete with its European and Asian counterparts.
Nationwide, American businesses export about $300 million in agricultural products to Cuba each year– and that’s just for humanitarian purposes. If the trade embargo were lifted, the US Department of Agriculture believes that number would be more than three times as much.
But Congress has not lifted the embargo — yet. Instead, for more than 50 years, American businesses and farmers have been hamstrung by it, unable to fully tap into a market with 11 million people just 90 miles from our shore. Let’s be honest: The trade embargo with Cuba hasn’t secured our interests or helped the Cuban people. Because the way to promote positive change and better human rights in Cuba is through engagement, not isolation.
With American business shut out, other countries have moved in. In 2015, I visited the port of Mariel – a massive new port designed to handle the largest ships in the world. Brazil is financing a $1 billion project, and in return, Cuba purchased more than $800 million in goods and services from Brazilian suppliers. The computers the port uses are from China.
It doesn’t make sense that American companies are not part of this critical economic development. It’s not that American businesses can’t compete, it’s that we’ve been shut out of the competition altogether.
That’s why, together with Republican Sen. Mike Enzi, I have introduced legislation — the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act — to lift the trade embargo once and for all and knock down the legal barriers to Americans doing business in Cuba, boosting exports and creating jobs here at home. It keeps in place the important human rights and property claims provisions already in US law.
Under the Obama administration, we started taking steps in the right direction. Today, traveling to Cuba is easier. American airlines have started new routes to Cuba and the first American hotel opened in Cuba last year.
US companies can work on telecommunications infrastructure in Cuba, and in late April, Google launched its first servers to make it the first foreign company to go live in Cuba. There are fewer barriers to banking in Cuba now, and our two governments are working on issues like agricultural productivity and food security, too.
We can and must do more. We have only scratched the surface with what’s possible. But now we have a new administration that has a different outlook on US-Cuba relations, which may result in a reversal of some of this progress.
Cuba Travel Minute
Engage Cuba — a nonpartisan organization representing economists, business groups, and experts — has said that reversing the policies of the Obama Administration could cost the United States economy more than $6 billion and more than 12,000 American jobs over the next four years.
The President is a businessman, and I hope that he can see that cutting off Cuba is a bad deal for American business. And I’d ask, why not take another step forward instead of two steps back? After all, the opportunity is there.
The private sector accounts for nearly one third of Cuba’s workforce, and there are currently over 500,000 licensed entrepreneurs. They need a good Internet connection. They need computers and office supplies. They need car parts. And if American businesses are shut out in providing these goods and services, other countries will step in.
On top of that, more than a million Americans will travel to Cuba over the next year. They need a way to get there. They need a place to stay. They need something to eat. Again, if American businesses are shut out, these tourists will be sleeping in Spanish-owned hotels and eating food from China. That’s not what we want.
As a nation, America is at its best when we are thinking and making things and exporting to the world.
Americans agree that we need to increase — rather than decrease — engagement with Cuba. During the last Congress, 25 senators, both Republicans and Democrats, supported my bill to lift the embargo. And even more expressed support for the bill behind the scenes. I really believe that if it had come to a vote on the Senate floor, it would have had a very good chance at passing.
Rebuilding our relationship with Cuba would be a win for American business and a win for the Cuban people.