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Donald Trump has threatened to abandon US efforts to restore trade and diplomatic ties with Cuba unless Havana makes new concessions, setting the stage for a clash with a US business community eager to exploit the opening up of the island economy.
“If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the US as a whole, I will terminate deal,” Mr Trump tweeted on Monday, responding to a debate set off by the death on Friday of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Mr Trump’s threat to unwind years of work by President Barack Obama to restore normal relations with Cuba drew a plea from business leaders for the president-elect to take a more considered view.
“We’ve now gotten to a point where we have an embassy and we have commercial flights that are starting [and] US companies managing hotels [in Cuba]. To unwind all of that and go back to the Cold War would be a shame,” former commerce secretary and Kellogg chief executive Carlos Gutierrez told the Financial Times.
With the backing of powerful agricultural and business lobbies, Mr Obama has been pushing since 2014 for a resumption of normal relations with Cuba and in March became the first American president to visit the island in almost a century.
In a sign of the changes under way, air carriers JetBlue and American Airlines on Monday flew their first regularly scheduled flights between New York and Havana.
There has also been a procession of business delegations to Havana, with a trip organised by the US Chamber of Commerce earlier this month including representatives from companies such as American Airlines, Dow and GE.
But with Republicans in Congress continuing to resist calls for an end to a 55-year-old trade embargo, Mr Obama’s efforts to normalise relations with Cuba have depended on tweaks to regulations and executive orders he can implement without congressional approval.
This could be quite an opportunity for someone who came out of business — our first businessman president — to be able to promote the benefits of free enterprise in a country like Cuba
Mr Gutierrez said the result of this month’s election, which saw influential Cuban-American legislators, such as Marco Rubio, re-elected, meant that resistance to lifting an embargo was likely to only grow stronger. And that meant that Mr Trump would hold the key for a business community that wants the US to continue its efforts to open up the Cuban market.
“It will depend on the executive to take the lead and right now the president-elect seems to be taking the lead from those members of Congress who have advised him to take a very hard line and to just go back to where we were … five years ago,” said Mr Gutierrez, a Republican who was born in Havana and chairs the US-Cuba Business Council, which lobbies for stronger commercial ties.
“This could be quite an opportunity for someone who came out of business — our first businessman president — to be able to promote the benefits of free enterprise in a country like Cuba.”
Those calls for Mr Trump not to act rashly were echoed on Monday by farm groups who see Cuba as an untapped market.
According to David Salmonsen, senior director of congressional relations at the Farm Bureau, the US’s largest agricultural lobby group, US farmers export just $200m annually to Cuba under a humanitarian exception written into the embargo almost a decade ago.
But Cuba represents a $2bn market, he said, and US farmers were losing out to the EU, Canada and other competitors because of bans on export credit financing and other restrictions.
Doug Keesling, a Kansas farmer who grows wheat, corn and other grains and is a member of the US Ag Coalition for Cuba, said Mr Trump’s potential opposition would only make what was already an uphill political battle more difficult.
But he remained hopeful that Mr Trump’s business background would help him see the opportunity in Cuba. “I think he wants what’s best for America and he will try to negotiate a deal that’s best.”
Pedro Freyre, chairman of the international practice at Ackerman, a law firm in Miami, said that Mr Trump faced clashing demands from powerful political constituencies.
While he now appeared to be playing to Cuban-American Republicans in the wake of Castro’s death, the reality was that as president he would need the backing of business and from farm states that he won in this month’s election.
“There is a political cost if he says to US business interests that he is just going to change the law,” he said. “Is he really going to kill a number of big business deals just in order to satisfy some Cuban-American voters?”
“Trump is a real estate developer. It is in his nature to look to make new deals in Cuba.”