HAVANA, Dec. 3th Cuba’s minister of foreign trade and investment told Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday that he believes the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States is an inexorable process that won’t be reversed no matter who is elected president in 2016.
Hours later, in a conference call with Texas reporters at the end of his three-day trade trip to Cuba, Abbott said he was convinced that Cuba is dedicated to the path of modernizing and adding private sector elements to its economy.
The governor said he was “impressed with a sense of entrepreneurial spirit, a longing for free enterprise” among Cubans.
Abbott spoke after a previously unscheduled two-hour meeting with Ricardo Cabrisas Ruiz, vice president of Cuba’s Council of Ministers and a close associate of the Castro brothers since the Cuban Revolution.
Despite the Cuban official’s old guard standing, Abbott said Cabrisas didn’t sound like a man resisting change.
“He seemed like a lead promoter of change,” Abbott said. “One thing that he made clear, and it seems like everyone makes clear, it is that they are going to advance, but it will be at their own speed, at their own doing.”
Abbott said in his conversations with everyday Cubans, “there is a growing sense of freedom and free enterprise here.”
“This is an historic process,” Rodrigo Malmierca Diaz, minister of foreign trade and investment, told Abbott at a Wednesday morning meeting. “It’s historic because it’s been a long time and a lot of administrations and there weren’t any changes, and now is when the changes are taking place. We think this process is irreversible, it’s not going to be taken back.”
“We think whoever gets elected president this process will continue,” he said.
That might not be the case if either U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida or Ted Cruz of Texas are elected president, but Malmierca made no mention of the two Cuban-Americans vying for the Republican nomination for the president.
In the meantime, Malmierca said, “the new situation regarding the U.S.-Cuba relationship has awakened the interest of many businesspeople around the world.”
“They see a light at the end of the tunnel, thinking that the blockade can be lifted someday,” he said, using the terms Cubans use to refer to the embargo, which remains in place despite President Barack Obama re-establishing diplomatic relations this year.
Ending the embargo would require congressional action.
When asked in the conference call with reporters whether it was time to end the embargo, Abbott said, “It is not within the parameter of my job to set the rules, it is my job to stay within the rules and make Texas continue to be the leader in exports.”
“My efforts are not contingent on things changing,” he said. “My efforts are based on the way things are today. We need to operate within the boundaries of the way the law exists today.”
Abbott said he believed the best way to promote freedom in Cuba was to promote free enterprise and contact with Americans – especially Texans.
“Of all the things we export across the entire world,” Abbott said of Texas, “our top export is freedom and free enterprise.”
Malmierca offered an outline for the Abbott delegation of the ways in which Cuba is modernizing its economy to make it operate more efficiently.
“Even though we keep the ideal of maintaining a socialist society, to modernize we mean to make our country more efficient,” he said, outlining three moves the government is making in that direction.
In his remarks to Abbott and the Texas delegation, Malmierca outlined three ways that Cuba is working to make its economy more modern and efficient.
First, he said, while the state will continue to own major enterprises, “the state doesn’t have to manage the enterprise day to day. We need to modernize our state enterprises to make them efficient, and a way to do this is to have an administration that makes decisions separate from the state.”
Second, he said there were small businesses —such as barbershops — for which state ownership was “absurd,” that had been privatized. Because of their nonessential nature, he said, their prices could be guided by the market.
“The price of bread, that price is still controlled by the state in a very complicated process, I am not going to explain this process, because it will bore you,” he said. But, he said, someone can choose to shave their head or grow their hair long, so a trip to the barber is nonessential.
And, the third way to modernize the Cuban economy, Malmierca said, is by encouraging foreign investment, a route that, he said, the U.S. embargo makes infinitely more complicated.
Even if it cannot be eliminated in one fell swoop, he said, “we need at least to continue trying to make it weaker.”