Expressing hope that he can return to the United States with positive news about Cuba’s progress on free enterprise, U.S Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue is visiting the island, where he is meeting with government officials and business owners.
But Donohue’s visit has drawn the ire of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and the son of Cuban immigrants.
Writing to the chamber, Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who always has pressed for a hard line on U.S. policy toward Cuba, said Cuba isn't an attractive investment opportunity because the government unjustifiably jails foreign business leaders and breaks international labor standards. He questioned the merits of engaging a government controlling almost all the country's economic activity.
I hope to go home with a very clear message of progress that's being made in Cuba on free enterprise and private employment and great progress in small business.
- Thomas Donohue, president, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Donohue is meeting with entrepreneurs, officials and university students. U.S. business executives traveled with him. The delegation arrived Tuesday afternoon in Havana and met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez.
"I hope to go home with a very clear message of progress that's being made in Cuba on free enterprise and private employment and great progress in small business," Donohue said. "And that I hope to go home with other information as well."
Chamber officials say it is the organization's first visit to the island since 1999.
The delegation was scheduled to visit an auto-repair cooperative Wednesday.
The two countries have no diplomatic relations, and the U.S. maintains a 52-year-old trade embargo against Cuba. But American food and agricultural goods are sold to the island under an exception to the sanctions.
President Raul Castro has launched a program of economic reforms in recent years, and has said that more foreign investment will be vital to meet the country's future financial goals.
But Menendez reminded the chamber the five-decade U.S. embargo against Cuba is unlikely to be lifted soon. He says Cuba must release political prisoners and give citizens their rights.
“I am deeply concerned about the U.S Chamber of Commerce’s willingness to seek out a relationship with a regime that is in constant violation of international labor rights,” said Menendez in his letter. “More specifically, the Cuban government’s labor and employment practices are in direct violation of International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions on freedom of association, collective bargaining, discrimination, the protection of wages, and the abolition of forced labor.”
The senator also blasted the agency for seeking to strengthen its relationship with Cuba.
"A government that jails foreign business leaders without justification, violates international labor standards, and denies its citizens their basic rights," Menendez said, "such conditions hardly seem an attractive opportunity for any responsible business leader.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.