Publishers Petition White House to End Cuba Book Embargo

havana-live-book fairHAVANA, March 11th Three major U.S. book publishers, several trade groups and others in the publishing industry have signed a petition urging the White House and Congress to end the Cuba trade embargo for books and educational materials.

The petition argues that the embargo “runs counter to American ideals of free expression” and lifting it would be “consistent with the will of the American people.”

Those who have signed include the world’s largest consumer book publisher, Penguin Random House, which is majority owned by Bertelsmann SE; Lagardère SCA’s Hachette Book Group; CBS Corp.’s Simon & Schuster; Open Road Integrated Media Inc.; the Authors Guild; the American Booksellers Association; and literary agent Jane Dystel.

President Barack Obama began loosening trade and travel restrictions in late 2014 when he announced that the U.S. would move to normalize ties with Cuba after more than 50 years of frozen ties.
The petition comes ahead of Mr. Obama’s visit to Cuba on March 20, the first of a sitting president since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. A few days before the visit, the Obama administration is expected to announce a further loosening of trade and travel regulations.

Those are being completed but could include allowing individuals to participate in people-to-people exchanges and revising regulations on how the U.S. dollar can be used in transactions with Cuba, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The Obama administration has already loosened trade and travel regulations in three previous rounds, all with the goal of using executive action to chip away at the embargo on Cuba as much as possible before Mr. Obama leaves office so his changes can be permanent.

Congress must act to fully lift the trade and travel embargoes, which they are almost certain not to do before Mr. Obama leaves office. The Cuba policy shift continues to face staunch Republican opposition, though proponents of the policy shift believe they might be able to get rid of the travel ban through the appropriations process before Mr. Obama leaves office.

The publishing petition has attracted more than 40 signatures, said Mark Coker, chief executive of Smashwords Inc., an e-book distribution platform that focuses on self-published writers.

Mr. Coker was part of a contingent of U.S. publishing executives who visited Cuba in February, where they met with Cuban publishing figures in a bid to build economic ties.

The three publishers who signed the petition said they did so because they believe they are unable to do business in Cuba without violating sanctions.

While amendments have been adopted that exempt the importation of information and information materials from the Cuba regulations, Mr. Coker said the regulations are convoluted and confusing.

That is why publishers believe they can’t sell books into Cuba and why Cuban counterparts believe they can’t do business with U.S. publishers, said Mr. Coker.

“I’d like to hear the Treasury Department or the president state that publishers can transact business without fear of penalties or hassles, and that the banks we rely on can transact business with the same confidence that they have with Europe or Asia,” he said. “There is an entire business behind the publishing and sale of books that touches the embargo. We need clarity.”

The petition from some of the biggest and most influential organizations in book publishing is setting the stage for a separate but related petition that the American public can sign at under the “We the People Petitions” section.

The petition signed by the major industry participants will be published on the editorial cover of the March 14 edition of Publishers Weekly, with the names of the signatories printed inside. Copies of the petition will then be sent to the White House and members of Congress, Mr. Coker said.

“It won’t be a big market for our books, but culturally it’s the right thing to do,” saidSteven Zacharius, chief executive of Kensington Publishing Corp., who has signed the petition.