ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
When Secretary of State John Kerry goes to Havana to raise a flag over the soon-to-be-reopened embassy this summer, it won't be just an important symbolic moment. The administration says the U.S. will be able to station more American personnel in Cuba, and that should be a big help as more Americans travel to and trade with the Cold War-era foe. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar says embassies around the world are doing more to promote American businesses, and she's hoping that once the U.S. Embassy is reopened in Havana, U.S. companies interested in doing business there will find a place to get advice.
SEN AMY KLOBUCHAR: If they're not some big Fortune 500 company, they don't actually have personnel on staff to help them vet customers, and, in fact, many of our small and medium-sized businesses in Minnesota and across the country use the Foreign Commercial Service. And they have people in the embassy so that they can actually call.
KELEMEN: But there's no Foreign Commercial Service staff based at the U.S. diplomatic post in Havana yet to answer such a call, and a U.S. embargo is still on the books. Nevertheless, Klobuchar, a Democrat, is looking ahead.
KLOBUCHAR: In order to really make this work once you lift the trade embargo, you're going to have to have people that are working to help American businesses; otherwise, just the big guys get all the business.
KELEMEN: Minnesota already exports about $20 million a year in agricultural products to Cuba under humanitarian exemption to the embargo. Cuban-American attorney Pedro Freyre teaches a course at Columbia University's law school about the embargo, which he says has more holes than Swiss cheese.
PEDRO FREYRE: There's huge, huge loopholes in the embargo. One of them has to do with the sale of agricultural products.
KELEMEN: Freyre, who's with Akerman LLP, sees big potential for trade in pharmaceuticals and in telecommunications. He says the U.S. can also export certain construction materials and paint for private property owners and charitable institutions in Cuba. He's looking forward to the newly re-established embassy, though he's found that it's becoming just as easy to work directly with Cuban officials as he takes his clients around Havana.
FREYRE: Having the embassy, I think, is always helpful; it provides comfort, it provides support. Your government is there for you. But right now, I have to say that the direct communications with the Cuban officials have been opening up.
KELEMEN: His own views about his homeland have changed, too. He was always a staunch opponent of the Castro regime but welcomes this new U.S. approach of engagement.
FREYRE: The U.S. tried direct invasion, confrontation, blockade, guerrilla warfare, exploding cigars and embargo, and none of it worked.
KELEMEN: Though he and other experts don't think Congress has the votes yet to formally lift the embargo, there is a push that's gaining momentum to open up tourism. Senator Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat, says Congress shouldn't stop there.
KLOBUCHAR: Well, if you just do that and you have Americans flocking to Cuba on vacation, they're going to be staying in Spanish hotels and eating food from Germany and China. So at some point, if we wait too long to get American businesses in there, we're actually going to be losing enormous opportunities.
KELEMEN: She has 17 co-sponsors on a bill to end the embargo but faces opposition from some key Republicans who accused the White House of looking for legacy and overlooking human rights abuses in Cuba. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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