Mike Strain, Louisiana's commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry, expressed a cautious optimism about the future of Louisiana's trade and agriculture economy under President Donald Trump's administration.
Strain spoke Monday to the Press Club of Baton Rouge about the economic potential of loosening trade restrictions with Cuba. He noted that from 2006 to 2015, Louisiana has led the nation in trade with Cuba, exporting $1.4 billion worth of goods, despite a decades-long U.S. economic embargo that severely restricts exports to Cuba.
Louisiana's has exported nearly three times more in goods than Virginia, which came in second for exports to Cuba.
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While the Obama administration appeared to be moving closer toward normalizing relations with Cuba, in part by allowing commercial flights and opening up tourism opportunities, President Trump has signaled some resistance to building on the relationship.
In November, he threatened to roll back Obama's actions, tweeting "If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal." Last month, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer announced the administration was conducting a "full review" of the U.S.'s relationship with Cuba.
Trump has similarly been critical of other U.S. trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, and he withdrew the nation from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade agreement negotiated under Obama which included Canada and Mexico.
Strain, a Republican, stopped short of criticizing the president's positions, but he stressed the importance of trade agreements and improving relationships with Cuba.
"We trade with countries we have agreements with," he said, adding that businesses and governments rely on certainty.
Strain has twice visited Cuba. He said the developing nation is ripe for trade opportunities that Louisiana is best positioned to capitalize on. He said on one trip he met with a farmer in Cuba who asked, "Why won't you sell us food?"
"Not give us food, but sell us food," Strain said. He said people on the trip saw a bag of poor-quality Vietnamese rice, noting that Louisiana could sell the country higher quality products at lower prices.
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Strain said he feels optimistic that Trump's administration will warm to opening trade with Cuba. He also said he is hopeful a bill in Congress moving toward improving trade with Cuba, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, will gain support.
"Our president is a businessman, he can read a balance sheet," Strain said. "Rural America is what elected the president. And what drives the economics in rural America is its agriculture, forestry and trade."
Louisiana's economy could also be impacted by changes in immigration laws under Trump, Strain said.
Louisiana's crawfish farms utilize many immigrants who are classified as "skilled returning guest workers."
The notion that these immigrants are taking American jobs is inaccurate here, because Americans are offered these jobs first, Strain said.
There are not enough Americans who will take the unskilled work, which often includes peeling crawfish.
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"What will happen if we don't have returning skilled guest workers, is we'll have crawfish being harvested and then put in the beds of tractor trailers and sent to Mexico to get it peeled there," he said.
Trump's administration recently began cracking down on legal foreign workers, in addition to illegal immigrants, by halting the expedited processing of H-1B visas, which allow immigrant workers to receive jobs typically in technology and health care jobs.
The administration has yet to impose restrictions on the H-2A and H-2B visas for seasonal agriculture and seasonal non-agricultural workers, which are used to employ immigrants in Louisiana's industries.