HAVANA — Gov. John Bel Edwards on Tuesday signed a series of agreements with Cuban officials, signaling a commitment to deeper trade relationships with the country as relations between it and the United States move toward normalization.
The memorandums of understanding are largely ceremonial as U.S. trade with the Caribbean island nation remains restricted, but leaders say they set the stage for Louisiana's major ports to have a significant role if or when those restrictions are lifted.
"We have a lot of work to do looking ahead to the day the embargo is lifted, and I think we all recognize that's the direction we are heading in," Edwards said after a meeting with some Cuba's top trade diplomats in a hotel conference room in Havana.
Edwards, a Democrat, this week set out on a five-day mission to Cuba, along with nearly 50 other business, agricultural and educational leaders, as the state looks to deepen its trade relationships with Cuba.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is scheduled to travel to Cuba next week as part of a trade …
It's the governor's first foreign trade mission since taking office in January. He said he began plotting it during his transition team's efforts even before taking office. Kathleen Blanco, also a Democrat, visited Cuba in 2005 when she was governor.
"This has been high on my priority list," Edwards said.
Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain, who is on this week's trip, traveled to Cuba in June to lay the groundwork for the trade mission.
"There's so much we can do together," Strain said. "We're working very hard in Washington to get them to lift the embargo, so we can have great trade together."
Edwards said he has not had a chance to have deep discussions with the state's Congressional delegation about the need for legislation to officially lift the trade ban, but he expects those discussions will happen in the coming weeks. U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, traveled to Cuba earlier this year.
Louisiana has led all states in exports to Cuba over the past decade, totaling more than $1.4 billion since 2006.
But officials say they see significant room for growth as the U.S. moves toward opening up trade opportunities with Cuba. President Barack Obama signaled a shift toward better relations in 2014 and bipartisan legislation has been proposed in Congress to officially lift the ban, though it has not passed.
"There is just so much that Louisiana has to offer," Edwards said.
The Louisiana Legislature this year instructed economic development officials to cultivate even deeper trade relations with Cuba, particularly in the agriculture sector.
Maria dela Luz B'Hamel Ramirez, Cuba's director of trade to North America, said that while relationships still have a long way to go in normalization, the country sees significant opportunities with Louisiana.
"The re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba mark the beginning of a path toward bi-lateral trade relations," she said.
The signing was heavily covered by Cuban press, who took photos of Edwards as he marked each with his signature.
Louisiana ranks first in the number of transit points for agriculture exports from the U.S. to Cuba, but isn't the largest source of those products to Cuba, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Others on the trip include officials from the state's major ports in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, south Louisiana and Lake Charles; LSU researchers; and business and agriculture leaders.
Edwards and the Louisiana envoy arrived on Monday and are scheduled to return Friday.
HAVANA – Gov. John Bel Edwards stepped off a plane into what felt like back in time after a …
"While we're here, we're eager to explore ways in which we can really develop our partnership to make sure it's mutually beneficial so that every opportunity is explored to the fullest," he said.
He said that Louisiana's had deep ties to Cuba before the now five-decade ban on most exports, except some food and medicine.
"This is going to put us in a position to regain that relationship," he said. "It ought to be a strong relationship."