By Timothy Boone, Theadvocate.com
Louisiana business and political leaders say President Donald Trump’s new restrictions on dealing with the Cuban government will have little effect on efforts to boost trade between the state and the communist country.
Mike Strain, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry, said the restrictions that Trump announced last week involve business dealings with the Cuban military and government and restricting individual travel to the island. But diplomatic relations between the two countries will continue; Americans will be able to visit Cuba as part of organized group tours; and there are no further exemptions on what goods can’t come out of Cuba.
While Strain said the new rules being proposed by the Trump administration have yet to be published, he has been assured by White House officials that agricultural trade with Cuba won’t fall under the restrictions on trade with the country’s military. “Agriculture is generally unaffected by the new policy,” he said.
Louisiana could soon take more steps toward developing deeper relations with Cuba.
Gov. John Bel Edwards and Strain have pushed for increased trade between Louisiana and Cuba. Strain made two trips to the country in 2016. According to the U.S. International Trade Administration, Louisiana did more business with Cuba than any state in 2016, sending over $114.2 million in exports. Much of that trade is in agricultural exports, such as rice, flour and sugar. In contrast, Alabama, the second-biggest trading partner with Cuba, shipped just under $44 million in exports.
“We’re going to continue to push very, very hard on agricultural issues,” Strain said. He said Cuba could eventually buy $500 million in ag products annually from Louisiana, including items such as rice, poultry, corn, beans and beef.
Trump’s policy means that in order to have fully normalized relations with the U.S., Cuba will need to make policy changes. “This is a desire to get things on the table and discuss them in earnest,” he said. At the same time, there are bills in the House and Senate to modify trade policy with Cuba, including a measure by Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., that would allow for direct sales of agricultural products to cooperatives and businesses. That would allow for the sale of a container of Louisiana rice to Cuban restaurant operators.
Caitlin Cain, chief executive officer for the World Trade Center of New Orleans, said Trump’s policy keeps the door open for Louisiana businesses to work with Cuban small businesses, especially those focused on tourism. There’s an opportunity to do things with Airbnb operators, tour group operators and restaurant owners, she said.
Don Pierson, secretary of Louisiana Economic Development, said the president’s new policy will require the state to carefully review what business dealings are permissible. “Where possible, Louisiana will be in a good position to capture trade and commerce opportunities because of the strong relationships we have in place,” he said in an email.
One example of the proactive policy is a Cuba trip that the Lafayette International Center will make at the end of the year to look for cultural and economic opportunities for Acadiana businesses, Pierson said.