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U.S. Chamber Cozies Up to Cuba for 'Potemkin Village Tour by the Castros'

Cuban-American lawmakers are criticizing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for leading a "shameful" trip to Cuba this week to, in the words of the business lobby, "develop a better understanding of the country’s current economic environment and the state of its private sector."

“Since I was last in Cuba 15 years ago, a reform program has reportedly taken 600,000 workers from government payrolls and allowed the number of self-employed entrepreneurs in the country to triple to more than 450,000,” Chamber president and CEO Thomas J. Donohue said last week. “This trip will provide us with a first-hand look at changes in Cuba’s economic policies and whether or not they are affecting the ability to do business there.”

Steve Van Andel, chairman of the U.S. Chamber’s Board of Directors and of Alticor Corporation, and Marcel Smits, CFO of the Cargill Corporation, are traveling with Donohue as part of the Chamber delegation in the trip licensed by the Treasury Department.

While in Havana, the Chamber said, delegation members "will meet with a variety of entrepreneurs, private cooperatives, government officials, academics, and religious leaders, among others." Donohue will also speak to students at the University of Havana.

“We want to learn more about these reforms, determine if they have brought about real and lasting changes, and find ways to encourage Cuba’s budding private sector,” Donohue said. “We will report our findings to lawmakers, our members, and the American business community.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) called it "shameful that a group like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would choose to visit the island gulag of Cuba where the tyrants owe billions of dollars to the private sector all over the world."

"It’s pathetic and disappointing that the Chamber is putting financial interests ahead of human rights and democratic values," she said. "Under the Castro regime, the Cuban people have no right to private ownership and are continually victims of policies that prohibit free market principles."

"While the Chamber is being given the Potemkin Village tour by the Castros, it should keep in mind that every dollar given to the regime will only further finance the oppression of the Cuban people.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) wrote a letter to Donahue today expressing his "serious concern" over the Chamber trip.

"While the Cuban government may be undertaking cosmetic changes in an attempt to attract badly-needed foreign investment and revive an economy that has suffered from a half-century of chronic mismanagement, I believe it is imperative to detail the frequently hostile operating environment that international business leaders have encountered in Cuba," Menendez wrote. "...Furthermore, I am deeply concerned about the U.S Chamber of Commerce’s willingness to seek out a relationship with a regime that is in constant violation of international labor rights."

The "reforms" touted by the Chamber, the senator noted, propose "beneficial changes for the state but ultimately ignores the benefits of the people."

"As codified by Congress, U.S. law stipulates specific conditions before the lifting of commercial and financial sanctions against Cuba can occur. These conditions are contingent upon the unconditional release of political prisoners and the implementation of guarantees for internationally recognized civil, political and economic rights – none of which have been met. In fact, according to the Wall Street Journal 2014 Index of Economic Freedom, Cuba ranks as the world’s second most repressive country, just one place above North Korea," Menendez wrote.

"...Such conditions hardly seem an attractive opportunity for any responsible business leader."