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In Cuba, US Commerce Secretary Promotes Private Sector

U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker (L) and Cuban Minister for Foreign Trade Rodrigo Malmierca sit for a photo opportunity, in Havana, Cuba, Oct. 7, 2015.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker told Cuban officials on Wednesday that Washington wants to promote the Communist country's nascent private sector to maximize trade and build on newly restored diplomatic relations.

Only the second cabinet-level U.S. official to visit Cuba since the 1959 revolution, Pritzker said her mission was meant to explain President Barack Obama's recent relaxation of the U.S. trade embargo. She also urged the U.S. Congress to lift the embargo completely.

Pritzker, an early supporter of then-candidate Obama and part of the family that created the Hyatt hotel fortune, was to meet with two Cuban ministers and one of its vice-presidents on the second day of her two-day visit.

In remarks to Foreign Trade Minister Rodrigo Malmierca and other officials, Pritzker said the lives of ordinary Cubans would only be improved if Cuban President Raul Castro's market-oriented reforms were extended.

"We urge President Castro and his government to make it easier for Cuban citizens to trade and travel more freely, to enjoy the fruits of their labor, to access the Internet, and to be hired directly by foreign companies," Pritzker said.

Deregulation slow in coming

In Cuba's Soviet-style economy, Castro has permitted much of agriculture to leave state control and form cooperatives while allowing small private businesses to thrive.

A foreign investment law passed last year offers tax breaks, but the Cuban state retains a majority stake in most ventures and controls the hiring of workers. Cuba has yet to allow foreign technology companies to wire the island, leaving it with the worst Internet access in the Americas.

Some 500,000 of Cuba's 11 million people are authorized to work as private contractors. Obama's measures have been aimed at helping them over the still-dominant state sector.

"The extent of their impact [regulatory changes] will be dependent on the Cuban government also taking certain steps to update its regulatory system and reform the economy in ways that support the continued development of a Cuban private sector," Pritzker said.

Obama and Castro shocked the world with their December 2014 announcement that the two former adversaries would end more than half a century of hostility and restore diplomatic relations.

When Secretary of State John Kerry came in August to open the U.S. embassy, he was the first cabinet level official to visit since Fidel Castro's rebels took power in a 1959 revolution. Pritzker is the first commerce secretary to visit since 1950.