MIAMI (AP) — A coalition of U.S. business leaders and economic experts on Thursday advocated new efforts to spur private enterprise in Cuba and help its residents.

The Washington-based Cuba Study group and several nonprofits laid out a proposal including websites to match independent Cuban businesses with donors, and programs to allow people in the U.S. to take out loans on behalf of relatives on the island. It also favors allowing limited imports from independent workers and cooperatives in Cuba.

The coalition wants to help regular Cubans become financially independent from a state that has long controlled nearly every aspect of the island's economy — a move they hope will lead to more political autonomy as well. The proposals are also part of a broader effort to chip away at the decades-old U.S. embargo of Cuba.

In January, President Barack Obama eased travel restrictions to Cuba for religious and educational organizations.

"As long as the Cuban economy was a totalitarian economy, the argument for an embargo was that you are hurting the Cuban state. As the Cuban economy becomes directed toward the private economy....then it begs the question as to whether the embargo is really hurting the government or the people," said Carlos Saladrigas, co-chairman of the Cuba Study Group.

The group together with the business-oriented Council of the Americas think-tank and the Center for Financial Inclusion, a nonprofit that tries to involve banks in micro-lending, say they recognize the embargo won't be lifted soon.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban-American and staunch supporter of the embargo, now heads the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Still, the coalition believes there are many ways the Obama administration can maneuver within the current law.

Other proposals include:

— Adopting regulations enabling U.S. residents to take out loans on behalf of relatives on the island;

—Allowing more nonprofits to travel to Cuba and even to set up bank accounts there if permitted by the Cuban government;

—Raising the current cap of $2,000 that non-relatives can send to people on the island;

—Taking Cuba off the list of state sponsors of terror;

—Looking for lessons in the experiences of China and Vietnam as those Asian nations open their economies.

Supporters of the U.S. embargo say the coalition's premise is flawed.

"The overall premise of the report is that there is a private sector," said Mauricio Claver-Carone, head of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC. "There is no private sector because Cubans can't own anything. Everything is leased by the government."

He also questioned the groups' goal of helping Cuba become more like China or Vietnam, which he labeled "economic-light dictatorships."

But Saladrigas maintains the coalition is simply recognizing a shift already under way.

The proposals follow sweeping economic changes on the island. The Cuban government earlier this year granted thousands of business licenses and for the first time is allowing farmers to sell products directly to consumers. It now plans to provide credit to some of these new microbusinesses through its government-run banks, though it remains unclear how much the cash-strapped government can offer.

"Much of this is already happening. We want to recognize what is happening and make it legal," said Saladrigas. "We want to reduce the reliance on the black market, and in the long run everyone will benefit from that."



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