Ending the trade embargo with Cuba could boost Louisiana’s economy by opening up major agriculture, petrochemical and tourism markets, opponents of the sanctions say.

“Before we had an embargo, New Orleans was the No. 1 port doing business with Cuba,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a coalition of businesses and organizations that wants to end the travel and trade ban. “It (Louisiana) is one of the largest rice-producing states in the country. Cuba consumes more rice per capita than any country in the Western Hemisphere.”

Cuba imports $2 billion worth of agricultural goods a year, with soy and rice accounting for $500 million of the total, Williams said. Louisiana rice farmers may be able to grab a piece of that.

If the U.S. opens trade with Cuba, the value of Cuba’s import market for agriculture products and other goods will increase exponentially, he said.

Williams’ comments came before a panel discussion and news conference launching Engage Cuba’s Louisiana State Council, whose members include agricultural, port, community and business leaders. About 30 people attended the launch.

The ban’s end has drawn little opposition in Louisiana. Last year, a 75-member delegation of business people, attorneys and educators spent a week in Cuba in an effort to re-establish ties broken after the Cuban Revolution in 1959.

Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Benjy Rayburn said the department sees Cuba as a potential market for the state’s rice, soybeans and poultry.

Opening a new market generally helps with commodity prices and gives producers more options, he said.

Joe Accardo, executive director of the Ports Association of Louisiana, said the petrochemical industry, especially fertilizer producers; ship builders; the John Deere cane cutter factory in Thibodaux; and the oil and gas industry could also benefit from the embargo’s end.

Paul Aucoin, executive director of the Port of South Louisiana in LaPlace, said increased trade doesn’t just mean more revenue for farmers.

It also means more jobs and more money in the economy and opportunities for U.S. entrepreneurs to invest in Cuba, he said. China, Russia and other countries have had their chance.

Aucoin said the Cuban people believe the U.S. offers the best opportunity for their country to reach its full potential.

Two reasons: One, it’s in the best interests of the American economy, and two, many Americans think it’s the right thing to do for the citizens of Cuba. Polls all show a majority of people favor lifting the embargo; 97 percent of Cubans do, he said.

Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr