Louisiana rice farmers would be one of the biggest beneficiaries of expanded trade with Cuba, a country ruled by a communist regime that has been under varying degrees of a U.S. trade embargo since the 1960s.
“It’s critically important for the United States to open up trade with Cuba,” said Kevin Berken, a rice farmer in the Jefferson Davis Parish town of Lake Arthur who speaks for the industry in Washington.
Berken was a speaker Friday in Lafayette at a Le Centre International de Lafayette-sponsored Conference on Cuba.
In December, after 18 months of secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations that led to Cuba freeing 53 political prisoners, President Barack Obama announced the nations — 90 miles apart — had restored diplomatic relations. On Friday, more trade rules were relaxed.
Though only Congress can end the embargo, the recent changes loosen the rules greatly.
Berken said Louisiana rice farmers, who he said grow rice that is the envy of the world, got a taste in the 2000s of how lucrative it can be to sell the commodity to Cuba. But later changes instituted by the U.S. on the way Cuba had to pay for goods — cash up front instead of credit — brought the amount of rice Louisiana was selling to the island nation to zero by 2009, Berken said.
The Port of New Orleans’ chief executive, Gary LaGrange, told the conference Friday the new rules include Americans in Cuba being able to spend any amount of money they wish, a change from the former restriction of less than $200 a day. Americans also can now purchase goods with U.S. credit cards and can return home with Cuba’s famous cigars without breaking the law.
LaGrange said efforts are underway to further open trade. On Saturday, six members of Congress, all Democrats, traveled to Havana for more talks.
Still, Cuba’s evolution as a full trading partner, where commerce flows both ways, faces barriers, LaGrange said.
“There’s not a thing in this room that Cuba doesn’t need,” said LaGrange, pointing around the meeting room at the Lafayette Petroleum Club, where the conference was held.
The country also needs a middle class that will take it from one of the hemisphere’s poorest nations to one with a vibrant economy, LaGrange said.
“But we’re not going to get there until the embargo is lifted,” he said.
Unfettered tourist travel to Cuba remains off-limits, but it’s opening up, Larry Sides said.
Since 2000, Sides has journeyed to Cuba 24 times under special grants, such as entering the country under religious license as part of the Episcopal Diocese of Cuba.
Sides said that while the government remains communist, the vast majority of the population is not.
“The Cuban people want a good economy,” Sides said.
The government, which since the 1959 Cuban revolution has been ruled by communists Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, also wants a good economy, Sides said.
But pushed into a corner, the government always “will opt for the principles of the revolution,” Sides said.
Expanded trade with Cuba has its detractors, namely a faction of Cuban exiles who left as a result of Castro’s takeover in 1959.
Even officials at Le Centre International who put on the conference Friday received complaints. Philippe Gustin, international trade manager at Le Centre, acknowledged “the political realities” inherent in widening trade with Cuba.
“But we’re not going to talk about politics,” Gustin said before introducing the speakers. “We’re going to talk about how people in Louisiana can work with Cuba.”