Exclusive Q&A: Erik Wulff on the Cuba Policy Shift
As an update to last week’s post about President Obama opening up trade and possibly ending the Cold War-era Cuban embargo, we spoke with Franchise Times Legal Eagle Erik Wulff, who is a lawyer and partner with DLA Piper, Washington DC, for his take on the significance and next steps of this historic announcement.
Wulff is active in American Bar Association's (ABA) Section of International Law, currently serves as a member of the ABA Task Force on International Trade in Legal Services, and is co-chair of the International Legal Exchange Program (ILEX), which is organizing a delegation to Cuba in February.
He said the change in policy is remarkable, but that “the devil will be in the details.” We tracked him down at the start of the Christmas holiday week to ask what this policy shift means for American franchise interests, goals of the upcoming Cuban delegation and what are likely next steps as this international story unfolds.
How significant is President Obama’s policy shift on Cuba?
This is going to be a very unpredictable road and there will undoubtedly be all kinds of twists and turns that one cannot predict today. It’s been five decades of strife, and really, two countries at each others' throats—that doesn’t end overnight. There is still a lot of distrust and suspicion. We have a political agenda with the Cubans that doesn’t fit well with the Castro generation, but they’re in their 80s and you’ve got the next generation stepping up in their 50s [that is] much more pragmatic. They recognize Cuba has fallen way behind. I think from the Cubans’ perspective there is motivation to make things work with the U.S. while holding onto their political power, which is a really tough job for them.
You said the devil will be in the details with this shift. What did you mean by that?
In the next few months, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, will visit Havana. U.S. Secretary of State [John] Kerry and Secretary of Commerce, Penny Pritzker are likely to visit as well. They also have an opportunity [with] the Summit of the Americas in Panama. Both Castro and Obama are likely to attend, so you can see where there may be quite a bit of work that will be done.
What American interests may derail progress?
The sanctions are a matter of legislation—Obama can’t make them go away. There are really very strong anti-Cuban interests that have had a strong voice, and perhaps a disproportionate voice over the years, and they haven’t gone away. That will need to be overcome in order to lift the sanctions.
I look at the glass half full. I’m hopeful that what Obama and Castro have done sheds a different light on how to deal with Cuba, and that the resistance from the Cuban-American community … will soften and help the political process of lifting the sanctions.
What are the most prominent concerns about Cuba from the American business community?
It’s a Communist country, it’s not a free-market economy. It’s not just that the government controls things, the government is doing everything. They have opened segments of their economy to private enterprise very carefully.
If you look at that part of the world, it’s beautiful. The climate is fabulous. You would imagine, if the Cubans are interested in enhancing their plight, that they would catch on quickly that they need to open the doors to welcome more tourists.
At some point there would be an opening for major hotel chains to develop hotels in Cuba. That drives a whole lot of other businesses that spin off from that.
The ILEX delegation was already planned before this announcement. How does this change the agenda?
It was unbelievable to hear that announcement, because it puts a spotlight on this delegation. There’s now a heightened level of excitement and anticipation of being welcomed by the Cubans and them wanting to hear from us and wanting to engage us at some level. Our mission is to build bridges of friendship with the legal communities [and] government officials in other countries, so we’re hopeful.
About the ABA ILEX Initiative
ILEX was created by the ABA House of Delegates in 1968 and its mission is the promotion and exchange of ideas among lawyers and judges concerning implementation of the rule of law around the world. Through ILEX, the ABA organizes briefing trips throughout the world and offers legal assistance and training for lawyers and other professionals. The ILEX briefing trips are the most substantive ways in which ILEX fulfills its mission.
The trips also provide a unique opportunity for delegation members to interact with legal, business and governmental leaders of the countries visited. Recent ILEX Delegations have visited Myanmar and Cambodia (2014), Israel (2013), Poland and Austria (2013), Tanzania and Rwanda (2012), Jordan and Lebanon (2011), Australia and New Zealand (2010), Peru and Brazil (2009), India (2009), and Korea, Japan and China (2008).