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It takes more than a presidential handshake to rebuild trade ties between the U.S. and Cuba after a half-a-century of official isolation. President Obama opened the door to more travel and trade with Cuba, but U.S. businesses are still constrained by the congressionally mandated embargo and by the mysteries of Cuba's own government. This week, regulators from both countries are meeting in Havana, trying to figure out where the commercial boundaries are drawn. NPR's Scott Horsley was there.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Commerce secretary Penny Pritzker led the U.S. team in Havana this week. She and her colleagues toured the old city, drank a lot of Cuban coffee and spent hours talking with their Cuban counterparts, many of whom they were meeting for the first time.
PENNY PRITZKER: After almost 55 years, there's so much we don't know, and we have to begin to develop trust because that's the basis of our ability to move forward as two countries.
HORSLEY: I spoke to Pritzker in an offense in the newly rechristened U.S. embassy in Havana. She conceded her hands are still partially tied by the U.S. embargo against Cuba. For example, she was not allowed to bring any American executives along to strike business deals on this trip.
PRITZKER: I can't have a trade mission. I can't do a lot of the things that we typically do in other countries. But I can fact find, and that's what we're trying to do.
HORSLEY: That's how Pritzker wound up on a bus this week, touring the Port of Mariel about 30 miles west of Havana. Charles Baker, who runs the port, was our tour guide. He showed Pritzker where Cuba is dredging the channel to accommodate larger cargo vessels that'll soon be plying an expanded Panama Canal.
CHARLES BAKER: Those large vessels will have a draft of about 15 meters if they're fully laden when they arrive.
HORSLEY: Baker says Mariel will be a natural stopping off point for cargo coming to and from the Pacific with docks just 45 minutes from the open ocean.
BAKER: Compare that to somewhere like Savanna, of course, where they've got to set up a river, which takes many hours and there's quite a complex maneuver. I'm sure they do it expertly, but I'm sure that the captains would very much like a bay like ours to sail into.
HORSLEY: Mariel has room to expand its cargo capacity nearly tenfold, Baker says, but that depends on a further loosening of U.S. shipping restrictions.
Back in the states, businesses are also eager to capitalize on new opportunities in Cuba. Steve Joyce of Choice Hotels International wants Congress to lift the embargo so his company can take advantage of what he expects will be at least a fourfold increase in American tourist visits.
STEVE JOYCE: There is a huge pent-up demand for two reasons. One is 'cause it's closest and it's the Caribbean, and everybody loves the Caribbean anyway. But two is, there's a natural tie to Cuba.
HORSLEY: The administration is also pushing Congress to lift the embargo, though officials are not holding their breath. Secretary Pritzker says if Cuba wants more foreign investment, it should make its own regulations more predictable, fix its confusing currency and allow more foreign companies to hire Cuban workers directly.
PRITZKER: Look; I come from the business community. I spent 27 years in the private sector. Those issues are impediments to their achieving their goals.
HORSLEY: Some critics say Pritzker should've waiting for the Cuban government to take those steps before she made this trip. John Kavulich, who heads the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council says a high-profile cabinet visit at this stage of negotiations is like offering the Cuban leaders dessert or maybe an after-dinner cigar before they've eaten their vegetables.
JOHN KAVULICH: They're getting the entire meal. They've gotten an appetizer, a main course, dessert and a great bottle of wine without having to do much of anything.
HORSLEY: But Pritzker can't stomach the argument that this week's visit was ill-timed.
PRITZKER: We can't even have salad, let alone our main course or dessert until we understand this situation on the ground.
HORSLEY: Pritzker calls this week's trip a first step towards that understanding and towards rebuilding the personal and commercial ties that were severed for so many years. Scott Horsley, NPR News.
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