WASHINGTON — The head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Wednesday that U.S. efforts to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba and ease curbs on trade presents American companies with "extraordinary opportunities" to boost business by selling everything from cars to computers.
Chamber president and CEO Thomas Donohue said President Barack Obama's move last month to remake U.S.-Cuba relations was welcome after more than 50 years of failed interactions with the island nation 90 miles from Florida.
"No matter what you are doing, if you are doing it for 50-plus years and it doesn't work you ought to do something else," Donohue told reporters Wednesday after delivering an annual "State of American Business" speech.
Donohue's comments placed him at odds with key Republican lawmakers such as House Speaker John Boehner and Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas.
The Chamber of Commerce spent heavily in the midterm elections, investing $35 million to elect business-minded, predominantly Republican lawmakers.
Donohue, who traveled to Havana last year, said the benefits of boosting trade with Cuba outweigh the risks.
"It is time for us to move" on Cuba, Donohue said, noting the decades of pent-up demand in the communist-run country for consumer products such as computers, smartphones and cars.
"Somebody is going to sell" the products to Cubans, Donohue said, "and it's not going to be all us. Look at how many other countries" have already moved to increase trade with Cuba, including Russia and China.
The chamber has long urged increased business ties with Cuba. Within a few weeks of Donohue's visit last year, both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin traveled to Cuba in trips they said were focused on expanding commercial ties, not taking aim at the U.S.
But Donohue said the U.S. should take notice of the interest in Cuba by potential U.S. rivals.
"We don't want to go back to a point where others who don't wish us well, or who are competitive not in an economic sense but in a geopolitical sense, set up shop 90 miles from one of our major U.S. cities," he said, referring to Miami.
At the very least, the opening to Cuba should allow the United States to "sell a bunch of cars there" and even expand the antique car business, Donohue said.
Meanwhile, Rubio and Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., called on Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew to detail how the Obama administration plans to implement its plan to normalize relations with Cuba.
Rubio and Coats expressed concern over what they called "stark differences" between the letter of the law and the administration's announcement, and they urged the administration to clarify its legal authority regarding plans to ease U.S. economic sanctions on Cuba.
"We are deeply concerned that several aspects of President Obama's new approach to Cuba, especially those related to unilaterally easing U.S. sanctions, violate the letter and spirit of several U.S. laws, and increase the moral and financial risk to the American taxpayer and financial system of doing business through Cuba's government-controlled financial system," the senators wrote in a letter to Lew Wednesday. "We ask that you explain in detail how the Treasury Department plans to implement the president's announcement under current law."
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