Why President Obama’s Cuba policy’s effectiveness will need more than a visit there

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HAVANA — President Barack Obama took more with him on his official state visit to Cuba this week than just his family and official gifts.  He also has in tow some U.S. business leaders, who share with him a desire for opening the island nation to greater economic opportunity.

For that to happen, however, more than just a state visit has to take place, although this week's history making trip is certainly significant.

Among the developments necessary for economic normalization to take place in addition to the restoration of diplomatic ties that Mr. Obama has brought about, an expansion has to occur.

Most Americans don't realize that the U.S. has already been trading with Cuba for 15 years, directly and indirectly, thanks to an agricultural exemption to the U.S. embargo as well as reselling of American products by foreign countries that have diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba.

As a result, it's common in Havana to see Coca-Cola products in stores and restaurants.  Cuba has also become the fifth largest importer of U.S. chicken parts.

Those kinds of economic scenarios have to increase in number and size in order for the relations between the neighboring nations to normalize economically.

There are signs of that happening, as evidenced by statements made by President Obama in Havana on Monday.

"I'm also joined by some of America's top business leaders and entrepreneurs," the president said in a joint speech with Cuban president Raul Castro, "because we're ready to pursue more commercial ties which create jobs and opportunities for Cubans and Americans alike."

Among the corporate leaders with President Obama on his trip was the CEO of Marriott Corporation, which announced this week that it had gained U.S. approval to operate hotels in Cuba.

If joins Starwood Hotels, which owns the W and Sheraton brands, among other properties, and AirBnB in obtaining permission to operate in Cuba.

This is just the beginning, as an economist at the NYU Stern School of Business pointed out.  "They've got a lot of catching up to do," Lawrence Wright said about Cuba's economy in an interview with PIX11 News.  [Cuba will] achieve bigger gains.  [But] to the extent that Americans want to spend leisure time" in Cuba, and in other ways that Americans want to take advantage of their neighbor to the south, "It's not a zero sum game, that's for sure," Wright said.

A simple look at the economies of the neighboring countries provides a clear picture of how vital economic growth is to the Caribbean island nation.  The entire Cuban economy is about as big as the revenue generated in the Times Square business district.  Put that another way, for every dollar that makes up the U.S. economy, Cuba's economy is worth four-tenths of one cent.

A significant factor in that low gross domestic product is the embargo, and a side effect of it is isolation from from the world's largest economy, for better or worse, as a frequent cultural traveler to Cuba pointed out.

"That's what's beautiful," said award winning photographer Michael Dweck about the Cuba he's come to know. "It's very hypnotic."

Dweck was the first photographer ever to have a solo exhibit at Sotheby's.  Some of the images that burnished his international reputation were from his book Habana Libre. Through his multiple trips to the country and time living there in researching the book, he said that he knows that President Obama's visit and policies mean change is underway.  The challenge, Dweck said, is for Cuba to not lose a certain unique quality as it grows economically, and grows more open to the U.S.

"You'll have a lot more people going legally that can just bring good things," Dweck said.

There's generally concern that too much change may happen too soon. However, there's only limited evidence of major change occurring in the foreseeable future, and that's due to one significant factor in the calculus toward normalization: Congress.

Only it can lift the embargo.  As much as the nation's chief executive, and the corporate chief executives he'd brought with him to Havana want it, significant change with Cuba has to happen in Washington.  It is not a city known for its willingness to work with the White House.

Nonetheless, the president said, in his joint speech with Raul Castro, "The embargo's going to end. When, I can't be entirely sure. But I believe it will end and the path that we're on will continue beyond my administration."

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