More than 100 newly independent Cuban business owners sent President-elect Donald Trump a letter Wednesday pleading with him not to rupture diplomatic ties and to protect the economic gains they’ve reaped.
Senior members of Congress hosted four visiting entrepreneurs from Havana in the first salvo of what promises to be an extended political battle over the future of U.S.-Cuba relations after Trump takes office next month.
“I hope that the next president of the United States, as a businessman, understands our needs,” Yamina Vicente, whose Decorazon company plans weddings and other events, said at a briefing on Capitol Hill.
“A few years ago, a new era of dreams in Cuba began,” she said. “I hope that my children will be able to dream too.”
The letter to Trump began by congratulating him on his victory last month over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“As a successful businessman, we’re confident that you understand the importance of economic engagement between nations,” the entrepreneurs wrote. “Small businesses in Cuba have the potential to be drivers of economic growth in Cuba and important partners of the U.S. business community.”
Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Tampa, Fla., rejected the widespread impression that the state’s large Cuban-American population opposes improved relations with Havana.
“Florida is not monolithic when it comes to Cuba,” she said.
Money sent from Cubans in Florida and elsewhere to their families in Cuba, Castor said, has helped private businesses there expand.
Cuban President Raul Castro, who took over the country’s presidency when his brother, Fidel Castro, fell ill in 2006, instituted reforms in 2012 that allowed limited private business in the communist country. Fidel Castro died late last month and his ashes were interred on Sunday.
After that opening to private business, the United States and Cuba renewed diplomatic relations in December 2014, reopened their embassies in July 2015, and Obama made a historic journey to Cuba in March 2016, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit the island nation since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.
Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia also advocated for preserving Obama’s easing of relations with Cuba, noting that last year, Virginia sold $42 million in agricultural products to Cuba.
“Virginia farmers want to have this market open,” Warner said.
Warner is co-sponsoring one of several bills in Congress that would lift entirely the economic embargo that President John F. Kennedy imposed in 1962, a few months before the Cuban missile crisis put the world on the brink of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.
While Cuba has maintained communist rule since then, the entrepreneurs who lobbied on Capitol Hill said U.S. policies are helping to open its economy.
“We need this reform to continue because it’s been very important for the growth of our businesses,” Marta Deus told reporters.
Calling the U.S. embargo “an abject failure,” Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts said it’s time for Congress to lift the embargo.
“It has not served the people of the United States, and it has made many Cubans miserable,” he said.
McGovern urged people to apply political pressure on Trump over maintaining U.S.-Cuba ties.
“Tweet the president-elect!” he said to laughter. “Whatever works!”
Deus extended a personal appeal to Trump.
“We invite him to come to Cuba to see the growth there – all the private businesses,” she said.
More than 500,000 people now work in the private sector, most of them running or employed by small companies, the Cuban business owners said in their letter to Trump.
Changes in laws and regulations by the U.S. and Cuban governments have led to more travel between the two countries, increased telecommunication services and expanded banking operations.
As with other key issues, Trump delivered mixed messages during the presidential campaign about his vision of U.S.-Cuba relations.
After saying for months that he supported Obama’s opening to Cuba, Trump used a visit to Miami to signal a shift.
Addressing an audience filled with Cuban-American immigrants and their families, Trump criticized the Obama outreach as “one-sided” and said it had “benefited only the Castro regime.”
Trump added: “But all of the concessions that Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done with executive order, which means the next president can reverse them. And that is what I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands. Those demands will include religious and political freedom for the Cuban people and the freeing of political prisoners.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, warned Trump that maintaining open relations with Cuba isn’t just a partisan issue backed by members of his party.
“There are many of us, Republicans and Democrats alike, who want this to work,” Leahy said of the still-fragile U.S.-Cuba relationship.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Rep. Kathy Castor’s surname.