As Air Force One took off in route to Argentina after President Obama's historic two-day visit to Cuba, the residents of the island returned to their daily routines, hoping that sooner rather than later they'll see changes that will improve their lives after more than fifty years of a communist government that tightly controls the economy.
"I have come here to extend a hand of friendship to the Cuban people," Obama said, directly looking to the audience seated at the Gran Teatro de La Habana before raising his eyes to where Raul Castro was seated and said, "I want you to know that my visit, I believe, demonstrates that you do not need to fear a threat of the United States."
For the first time, Cubans saw on live TV the president of the country that until recently was portrayed as the enemy and bringer of maladies.
In his visit, the President was accompanied by members of Congress of both political parties as well as business leaders, among them Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban-American and currently president the U.S Chambers of Commerce's U.S.-Cuban Business Council.
Though President Obama exhorted Congress to lift America's long-standing embargo against Cuba, he also told the audience that this would not be enough without allowing the free flow of ideas, including those critical of the government, free association and access to information.
"There's no need to fear the different voices of the Cuban people," he added while looking again at Castro.
Though the lifting of the embargo, or blockade, as is is called in Cuba, is an act of Congress, previous to the visit, the Obama Administration, through the U.S. Treasury Department, issued new regulations affecting financial transactions between Cuba and the United States, which helps, but is not enough.
"It does facilitate commerce between the countries, however, such financial transactions remain limited to business dealings that are authorized by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) through a general or specific license," said Peter Quinter, head of the customs and international trade law group at Florida-based law firm Gray Robinson.
The U.S. embargo of trade and investment in Cuba is still very much in effect. U.S. banks will still block wire transfers to Cuba for transactions that are not authorized by OFAC.
Jeff Flake, Republican senator for Arizona, who accompanied Obama in his trip to Cuba, recently sponsored a bill whose aim is to end all travel restrictions to the island. Other bills that would ease doing business with Cuba are not expected to be taken up by Congress before the new president takes over next January.
For Gutierrez, a lifelong Republican who served as a Secretary of Commerce under George W. Bush, changes announced by the Treasury "will make it easier for U.S. companies to do business in Cuba while also empowering the growing Cuban private sector."
The Castro brothers, both important actors in the Cold War, know that opening the door to new ideas and criticism implies risks that they should calibrate before taking any steps. While Raul was talking to Obama, members of the international press saw women from the dissident group Ladies in White dragged into police cars by the feared Ministry of the Interior. It was a clear signal for Cuban locals: A perestroika in Cuba is off the table.
U.S. companies know this and in spite of the recent euphoria about he opportunities in Cuba, the business community in the United States has been cautious in its approach the island. The Cuban government does not enjoy good credit in the international markets and investors do not enjoy the guarantee of an impartial legal system to settle disputes; this means that the government can freeze deposits in hard currency at will.
"As of now, there are not guaranties or a visible will to change by the Cuban government," said Cuban-American Conrado Gonzales, who is president of insurance firm Financial Benefits Corp., based in Union City, N.J. "As long as the Generals control the economy, I would advise to be extremely cautious when thinking about investing in Cuba."
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.