HAVANA (AP) -- A group of former high-ranking U.S. officials, business executives and academics called Monday for President Barack Obama to loosen the five-decade embargo on Cuba in order to stimulate the flow of capital and expertise to the island's nascent class of independent entrepreneurs.
The head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, announced that he would make his first trip to Cuba in 15 years to gauge how the growth of the private business sector could create opportunities for American corporations.
Chamber head Thomas J. Donohue said he would meet with entrepreneurs and government officials and speak to students at the University of Havana next week. He will be accompanied by executives from Alticor, the parent company of the Amway direct-sales business, and Cargill, the Minnesota-based agribusiness giant.
"This trip will provide us with a first-hand look at changes in Cuba's economic policies and whether or not they are affecting the ability to do business there," Donohue said.
Advocates of greater engagement with Cuba say that U.S. public opinion increasingly supports weakening the embargo and have been pushing for Obama to open more channels to Cuba before he leaves office.
The open letter, meanwhile, asks the president to take a series of executive actions, including allowing legal travel to Cuba by experts who can train Cuban business people in law, real estate and financial services. It also requests Obama to allow U.S. travelers easier access to money in Cuba, along with increasing Americans' ability to send money from the U.S. to support private businesses.
It also asks Obama to authorize the sale of telecommunications equipment to Cuba, including cell towers and satellite dishes, and allow telecommunications company officials to conduct business travel to Cuba to sell their products.
In 2009, Obama allowed Cuban-Americans to make unlimited trips to visit relatives here. The George W. Bush administration had limited travel to Cuba to a trip every three years. In 2011, Obama reinstated "people-to-people" trips, allowing U.S. citizens to travel legally to Cuba for educational tourism focused on contact with ordinary Cubans.
President Raul Castro has legalized small-scale, private businesses in nearly 200 fields since 2010, creating a new class of roughly 400,000 independent entrepreneurs and their employees.
"Now more than ever the United States can help the Cuban people determine their own destiny by building on the U.S. policy reforms that have already been started," the letter reads.
The 44 signers of the letter include retired Adm. James Stavridis, former head of U.S. Southern Command; Andres Fanjul, a member of the Cuban-American family that runs America's largest sugar producer, and former Deputy Secretary of State and Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte.
A poll released in February by the nonpartisan Atlantic Council found that 56 percent of Americans and 63 percent of Floridians supported more direct engagement with Cuba. In Miami-Dade County, home to the largest concentration of Cuban-Americans, 64 percent of adults said they favored changing U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba.
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