Martina Feria lives in a capital city in a country less than 100 miles from the United States. On a warm November day in 2015, she used the Internet for the first time.
“It is very difficult to connect because it seems like the whole world is trying to get on the Internet,” she said, surrounded by hundreds of others crowded into a public Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana, Cuba. “Sometimes you connect but it is slow.”
Multiple estimates claim about 5 percent of Cuba’s population has access to the Internet. In Havana, Cubans mostly log on from public Wi-Fi hotspots administered by the state-run telecommunications provider, ETECSA.
It is into this market, with a Soviet-style economic doctrine and bureaucratically run economy, that American businesses want to expand. This week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce led what it describes as the largest-ever American business delegation to Cuba. It included executives from more than 30 companies like Caterpillar, American Airlines and Boeing.
On that trip, U.S. cellular carrier Sprint signed a texting and roaming agreement with Cuba’s government-run carrier.
“I look at it as this is the first baby step of what I hope will be a long-lasting relationship with this country,” said Marcel Claure the CEO of Sprint. “There is a long way to go but I think the progress that has been made in this last year surpasses the progress that has been made in the last 49 years, so you know for all of us it's an exponential thing.”
Following Fidel Castro’s seizure of power in 1959, the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Cuba and initiated a broad-based embargo. The Castro regime has eased some restrictions on its economy, though Amnesty International still describes Cuba as a country where “civil and political rights continue to be severely restricted by Cuban authorities.”
“They are controlling everybody,” said one Cuban dissident. “I remember the past, and I tell my son, it was better. We were free.”
President Obama says has determined that isolating Cuba has failed to encourage regime change. As a result, his administration has reestablished ties with Havana and relaxed some restrictions for U.S. businesses operating in Cuba.
“What we found is what the U.S. policy has done is isolated America and it’s time to change that. Engagement works a lot better than isolation,” said Bill Lane, said Caterpillar’s director of Global Governmental Affairs. “China is one of our biggest export markets. People used to say that if you trade with China it’s going to be counterproductive. You know, it’s an enormous engine for growth not only in the region but throughout the world. Plus, it’s an export market. We now are on the cusp of having a free trade agreement with Vietnam. That’s promoting positive change.”
Private business activity and American companies’ ability to expand into Cuba is still extremely limited. Many businesses are concerned with violating U.S. economic sanctions that are still in place. Still, the administration is trying to work with American companies to encourage more U.S. investment. With less than a year and a half remaining in Obama’s term, businesses are hoping to cement that policy.
“President Obama took a bold step forward and the U.S. Chamber has supported the actions to date of the administration as regards to Cuba,” said Myron Brilliant, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s executive vice president and head of international affairs. “There is no question that the next president might take a different path which is why we’ve encouraged the Cuban government not to slow down in their efforts to reform their economy, but to continue to show evidence to the outside world that they are interested in encouraging foreign direct investment.”
Though one candidate hoping to be that next president said he would reverse President Obama’s reconciliatory policies toward Cuba, arguing the new U.S. approach is enriching an oppressive regime.
“It is not in the National Security interest of the United States to have anti-American, communist dictatorship 90 miles from our shores. And that's what they are, they are an Anti-American communist dictatorship that constantly lines up against America and against our best interests, and is constantly aligned with the worst elements in the world.” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Republican presidential candidate and Cuban American staunchly opposed to relaxing restrictions against the Castro regime.
“Whether it’s Russians, whether it’s Assad, whether it was Gaddafi before, that’s what exists 90 miles from our shores. We should not be strengthening that government that controls the entire economy. We should not be strengthening them by providing sources of revenue to fund their repression,” Rubio said.
Many Cubans blame the embargo, called the “blockade” here, for their underdeveloped economy, though experts said the Cuban government’s policies are also at fault.
“It's both the boogeyman that the government has, in Cuba, historically pointed to as the cause of their economic problems, but it does have real effects,” said William LeoGrande, a professor at the American University School of Public Affairs and expert on U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America. “[Cuban President] Raul Castro is different than Fidel Castro was. Fidel always blamed economic problems on the embargo. Raul Castro has been pretty candid in saying that the heart of the problem is their own economic difficulties. And that's why he's trying to reorganize the economy.”
For many in Cuba change is happening to slowly, both in Washington and Havana.
Rich Edson is a Washington correspondent for Fox News Channel. Prior to that, he served as Fox Business Network's Washington correspondent.