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Economy & Business

Despite Embargo, Normalized U.S. Relations Spark Change In Cuba's Economy


Now to Miami where we ask Cuban-Americans whether they thought President Obama's visit would improve life on the island beyond baseball. Alberto Rodriguez - he left Cuba in the 1960s - says things can't get much worse there.

ALBERTO RODRIGUEZ: The people are the ones that suffer. They're making $20 a month. You can't live on $20 a month.

CORNISH: Leonardo Gordo has more recent memories of Cuba, having left just 14 years ago. He says he has faith that things will get better.

LEONARDO GORDO: I know that at the end of the day it's up to the Cuban government to make the actual change for the Cuban people. But I think that President Obama's visit over there has had a positive impact the vast majority of Cubans in Cuba and Cubans in Miami.

CORNISH: He's hopeful that Congress eventually will repeal the Cold War era economic trade embargo that separated the Cuban and U.S. economies. I ask Rachel DeLevie-Orey, a Cuba expert with the Atlantic Council, about the changing economic conditions, starting with whether she thought Congress would do that.

RACHEL DELEVIE-OREY: I'm not optimistic that Congress will overturn the entire embargo in one night. But it is possible that they could chip away at it and sort of make allowances for different types of economic activity in Cuba.

CORNISH: So, you know, I took a look at the Commerce Department fact sheet on this, and I see company names like Carnival Cruise Lines and Starwood Hotels and Resorts in terms of activity in Cuba thanks to this easing of restrictions. But outside of hospitality, who's benefiting here?

DELEVIE-OREY: I think that one of the sectors we're seeing benefit most is this small emerging private sector in Cuba. Recently, certain small businesses have cropped up, things like hair salons, small gymnasiums, small restaurants. And so people who are able to get money back from their relatives who are living in Miami in Florida, anywhere in the United States, they're now able to receive unlimited remittances from that family. And that sort of served as seed money for these businesses. So that's been very helpful for small business owners.

CORNISH: So what does that mean for Cuba? I mean, can they get more money from the international community? I mean, how could this affect them outside of the embargo?

DELEVIE-OREY: I think one of the biggest things that could change is Cuba's access to the international financial institutions, like the IMF, like Inter-American Development Bank. And that's something that President Obama could really bring to the forefront as well. He can allow the United States to abstain from votes on this, which would allow Cuba access to assistance from these institutions, which would really help improve the Cuban economy.

CORNISH: You've said that this means that Cuba won't necessarily be able to demonize the U.S. in the same way. But is there any sign that it really could have an effect on the economic and political climate inside of the country?

DELEVIE-OREY: I think on the economic climate absolutely. I think that we are already seeing that President Obama lifted the remittance cap for Cuban-Americans, raised the remittance cap so that there is much more capital flowing into the country, especially as certain industries like telecom, hospitality, agriculture, are able to put more money into the Cuban economy. That's giving Cubans greater economic autonomy. And that's something that I think is in U.S. and Cuban interest to see expanded.

CORNISH: When it comes to the Cuban economy itself, what are you looking for in terms of what Raul Castro might do, actual changes from Cuba's government?

DELEVIE-OREY: Well, I think that Raul Castro has actually proven himself not to be the ideological twin of his brother, which is to say that he has opened up the Cuban economy little by little. And so that's going to mean sort of cleaning up the financial system, which means working on unifying the dual currency system, making the books more transparent, creating a legal structure which foreign companies will find trustworthy. And so all of these things are going to be important. And I think that we've seen a certain degree of willingness from Raul that we did not see from Fidel.

CORNISH: Rachel DeLevie-Orey is an assistant director with the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin American Center. Thank you for speaking with us.

DELEVIE-OREY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.