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A Reopened Embassy In Havana Could Be A Boon For U.S. Businesses

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A fisherman cycles past the U.S. Interests Section building, behind right, in Havana in May.

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 in practical terms as more Americans travel to and trade with the Cold War-era foe.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar says U.S. embassies around the world are promoting American businesses, and she's hoping that once the U.S. embassy is reopened in Havana this month, American companies interested in doing business there will find a place to get advice.

"If they're not some big Fortune 500 company, they don't actually have personnel on staff to help them vet customers," Klobuchar says. "In fact, many of our small- and medium-sized businesses in Minnesota and across the country use the foreign commercial service. They have people in the embassy, so that they can actually call."

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.

"In order to really make this work, once you lift the trade embargo, you are going to have to have people that are working to help American businesses," she says. "Otherwise, just the big guys get all the business."

Minnesota already exports about $20 million a year in agricultural products to Cuba under a 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.

"There's huge, huge loopholes in the embargo," Freyre says. "One of them has to do with the sale of agricultural products. The United States is one of the biggest trade partners that Cuba has. If you have a chicken cutlet in Havana, its likely to be a U.S. chicken."

Freyre, a partner with the law firm 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.

"Havana is a city that is in dire need of a paint job, so I suspect you're going to see some opportunities there to get that type of material over to Cuba," he says.

Freyre's looking forward to the newly re-established embassy, though he's found that its becoming just as easy to work directly with Cuban officials as he takes his clients around Havana.

"Having the embassy, I think, is always helpful," he says. "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."

Freyre's 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.

"The U.S. tried direct invasion, confrontation, blockade, guerrilla warfare, exploding cigars, an embargo, and none of it worked," he says.

Though he and other experts don't think Congress has the votes yet to formally lift the embargo, the push to open tourism is gaining momentum. Klobuchar says Congress shouldn't stop there.

"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," she says. "At some point, if we wait too long to get American businesses in there, we're actually going to be losing enormous opportunities."

Klobuchar has 17 co-sponsors on a bill to end the embargo, but faces opposition from some key Republicans, who accuse the White House of looking for legacy and overlooking human rights abuses in Cuba.

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