The opening of trade between the United States and Cuba could be a boon across several industries in Louisiana, business leaders told Cuban officials in New Orleans on Wednesday.
"Most of our customers are very excited to see how the Cuban market is going to evolve when relations are normalized," said Kristi App, vice president for business development at New Orleans-based global import and export logistics firm JW Allen.
Most exports from the U.S. to Cuba, except some food and medicine, are banned under a five-decade-long embargo against the Caribbean island nation.
But the Louisiana Legislature last year instructed the state to work to strengthen its ties and better position itself to benefit once the restrictions are lifted. Louisiana Economic Development is scheduled to report back to the Legislature by Feb. 1 on those efforts.
A seven-member trade delegation from Cuba traveled to New Orleans this week to discuss potential opportunities for partnering Louisiana – the latest step in the broader push.
"We have a futuristic view with forward thinking, hoping that everything will get to better terms and conditions," Ana Teresa Igarza, general director for the Office of the Mariel Special Development Zone in Cuba, said through a translator.
The national push to end the embargo against Cuba still faces significant hurdles and particular uncertainty under the new Trump administration. Opponents argue that the communist nation must make significant political and humanitarian reforms and compensate U.S. citizens and businesses for property that the government seized after the Cuban Revolution.
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Igarza said that the Cuban government and business community want to develop a strong relationship with Louisiana, reciprocating what Louisiana lawmakers expressed in last year's directive.
"I think we have to learn to coexist and live peacefully with each other and do business together for the benefit of humanity," she said.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, traveled to Cuba with a delegation of business, transportation and education leaders in October with the goal of building support for potential trade arrangements, particularly for Louisiana agriculture products. He signed ceremonial "memorandums of understanding" that pledge to enter into trade deals when relations are normalized.
Louisiana leaders say that a fully-resumed relationship could result in as much as $500 million in Louisiana products, including rice, poultry and beans, being exported to Cuba, which relies heavily on imports for its food supply.
Business leaders who attended Wednesday's forum at the Port of New Orleans all said that trade with Cuba could offer significant opportunities for the state.
Eddie Gaspard of Kennedy Rice Mill in Mer Rouge said Louisiana's rice industry is currently stuck in a slump. Despite state's high-quality crops, the price has continued to tumble.
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"The farmers are not getting enough, and we can't sell the rice at any price," he said. "We're just not getting the price we'd like to get for the farmers, for the mills; no one's getting any type of margin on that. It's very slow."
The rice mill has been in operation since 1904 and is just three miles from waterway access to the Mississippi River – a prime location for shipping out of the Port of New Orleans.
"This would open the door tremendously," he said of the potential to export rice to Cuba, which has one of the highest per-capita rice consumption rates in the Western hemisphere. "I think the rice industry would really take off."
Kennedy Rice already exported to Cuba leading up to the embargo.
"We used to ship thousands and thousands of pounds to Cuba," Gaspard said. "I'm hoping we can get back to where we were."
President Barack Obama in 2014 signaled movement toward normalization with Cuba by re-establishing diplomatic relations and easing some restrictions on travel and exports. Obama steadily peeled back restrictions through executive orders, as Congress mulled legislation to more broadly end the embargo.
One of the largest remaining hurdles is that U.S. banks are barred from doing business in Cuba. ATMs, credit cards and other common payment options aren't allowed.
Payments have to be in cash and have to be made in advance.
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Gaspard said he's not worried that the climate will change now that Republican Donald Trump has become president and he's confident the embargo is nearing its end.
"It's pretty obvious," Gaspard said. "I think it's going to open up pretty quick."
App said Louisiana has a lot of small and mid-sized companies that export goods.
"Many of them have excelled when going into newly-opened markets," she said.
Jim Henderson, vice president of New Orleans Cold Storage, said his company would like to see increased opportunities for both importing and exporting.
He envisions ships leaving Louisiana with containers of poultry, pork or beef and returning with Cuban produce and seafood for consumption in the United States.
"The trade is always better when you import and export. It's best for everyone," he said. "That would be our ultimate goal - to have two-way trade."