External Affairs

Business Officers Included in US Expulsion of All Cuban Diplomats

The Cuban national flag is seen raised over their new embassy in Washington July 20, 2015. Credit: Reuters

The Cuban national flag is seen raised over their new embassy in Washington July 20, 2015. Credit: Reuters

Havana: The Cuban diplomats expelled from the US this week included all those dealing with US businesses, Cuba’s embassy in Washington told Reuters on Thursday, dealing another blow to bilateral commercial ties.

In an escalating crisis between the Cold War foes, the Trump administration on Tuesday expelled 15 diplomats to protest Communist-run Cuba’s failure to protect US embassy staff in Havana from a mysterious spate of alleged health attacks.

“Due to this decision, the activities developed by the Economic and Trade Office of the Embassy of Cuba to the US… will be seriously affected,” one Cuban diplomat said in a farewell message to a US group that takes investors to the Caribbean’s largest island.

The Cuban embassy is often the first step in the process for US companies to explore opportunities and make a pitch. Officials help them submit a trip proposal, seek out counterparts at state-owned enterprises in the centralised economy, and receive a business visa to travel to Havana.

Whether the embassy will still be issuing such visas remains unclear, given one diplomat will remain in the consular section.

On the American side, the downgrade of the US embassy  – Washington last Friday ordered the departure of all non-emergency staff – will likely make it harder for US companies to find their way in Cuba.

“It’s the chilling effect of a diplomatic crisis,” said Pedro Freyre, a Cuban-born attorney who heads the international practice at law firm Akerman.

Some US companies may choose to stay on the sidelines until relations improve, he said, adding that his clients already pursuing opportunities in Cuba were staying the course as they saw it as a long-term play.

US companies flocked to Cuba in the wake of the detente former Democratic President Barack Obama agreed in 2014.

Some deals allowed by new exemptions to the decades-old US embargo have come to fruition. American Airlines  and United Airlines  now run commercial flights to Cuba. Royal Caribbean  and Carnival Corp  operate cruises there.

The original frenzy in US commercial interest in Cuba was tempered by the realization that doing business in cash-strapped Cuba was difficult and even harder with a trade embargo in place.

Businesses now face a hostile stance from Republican US President Donald Trump, who in June ordered tighter restrictions on travel and trade that have yet to be unveiled. Last Friday, his administration issued a warning on travel to the island.

(Reuters)