D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Council members Vincent Orange  (D-At Large) and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), as well as Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett (D) and Maurice Jones, the secretary of trade and commerce for Virginia, recently traveled to Cuba with dozens of business people and government officials from around the Washington region to explore future opportunities for money-making deals. Cuba is a communist nation that until last year had no diplomatic ties to the U.S.

Bowser, the first District mayor to make the journey, said that traveling abroad to promote the city is part of her job, despite Cuba’s long-history of human rights violations.

“From China to Cuba – and everywhere in between – these missions are important because they can create jobs for our residents and improve our local economies,” the mayor said.

To Joshua Lopez, a District business consultant with expertise in construction and infrastructure, points to numerous business opportunities in the country. “There is a lot of potential and a lot of opportunity in Cuba,” Lopez said. “There are a number of opportunities for D.C. businesses in construction and building the country’s infrastructure because Cuba needs to modernize its roads and bridges.”

In Havana, the Bowser delegation met with Cuban officials including Havana Mayor Marta Hernandez Romero, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodriguez Parilla, and Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment Rodrigo Malmierca Diaz. The delegation also met with the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba Jeffrey DeLaurentis and toured primary and secondary schools, research hospitals, and attended clinics on how to maintain high health standards with limited resources.

The Bowser trip was sponsored by the Greater Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and was led by its chief executive Angela Franco. “There are a lot of things we can learn from what they are doing in Cuba,” said Ed Potillo, a Cuban American and candidate for the Ward 7 D.C. Council seat in the June 14 Democratic primary.

Cuba and the U.S. had excellent, though paternalistic, relations until Fidel Castro overthrew the American-friendly Batista government in 1959 and nationalized many American businesses. Castro aligned his country with the Soviet Union and its communist government and, as a result, many Cubans left the country to settle in the U.S., particularly in Florida. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy and the U.S. Congress imposed a trade embargo against Cuba that prohibited the trading of most American goods to the country.

President Obama re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba in December 2014, despite the strong protests from some Cuban American leaders who tend to be conservative Republicans. Since establishing relations, some political leaders such as Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) have visited Cuba looking for trade opportunities and stronger educational and cultural exchanges.

President Obama is scheduled to visit Cuba from March 21-22. He will be the first president to go to the island nation since Calvin Coolidge in January 1928.

Cuban American leaders such as U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) don’t support establishing any relationship with Cuba until it frees its political prisoners and allows for the freedom of the press and speech, and institutes a democracy style of government. However, politically divergent groups such as the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the progressive Congressional Black Caucus have asked that the embargo be lifted so that businesses can trade with Cuba and citizens can freely travel there.

Marcus Skelton, former chairman of the D.C. Young Republicans, said he has mixed feelings about Bowser’s trip. “There is no guarantee of success dealing with Cuba,” Skelton said. “I want to see how it goes. I hope both countries can work things out but if they don’t the embargo is still in place.”