Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain.JPG _lowres

Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain

While legal and political barriers remain, mere geography is on the side of Louisiana's exporters when it comes to trade with Cuba.

A series of trade promotion trips is therefore underway involving Louisiana businessmen and officials, seeking to build relationships before what is seen as the inevitable lifting of the U.S. trade embargo on the Communist-governed island.

The latest group included rice farmers, eager to sell to a North American country that now imports much of its rice from Vietnam.

The data: Louisiana exports $439 million worth of rice each year. Cuba imports $173 million of rice per year and on average consumes more than 177 pounds of rice annually, the most rice per capita in the western hemisphere.

The new trade group, headed by Commissioner Mike Strain of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, was of course heavy with farmers from the state but also included a range of business interests.

While agriculture has an obvious interest in a new and physically close market, tourism officials are also interested in what Cuba can offer.

“We are in a prime position to export agricultural products, petrochemicals and the cruise industry," said former state Rep. Joe Accardo, executive director of the Ports Association of Louisiana.

Is all this premature?

Because of the deplorable human rights record of the Cuban government, there is always going to be the potential for rifts between the United States and the island's cruel leadership. What President Barack Obama's normalization of relations does is allow a dialogue to begin but business is not only a matter of diplomacy; instead, it is relationships and credit arrangements with buyer and seller, and supply and demand.

Louisiana can supply a lot of what Cuba currently demands, but the consequence of socialism over the decades has been economic failure and social misery. Credit is hard to come by in such a poor country.

Nevertheless, there are opportunities: Cuba needs our farm products, and we commend Strain for this groundwork. It is not the first nor the last such trip: The commissioner said that Gov. John Bel Edwards will join a similar delegation in October.

"It is critical to establish these important business relationships now in order to gain access to new market opportunities for our Louisiana agricultural producers when it does," Strain said.

He is right, but there remain significant difficulties ahead as Louisiana exporters work their way through legal and language barriers but also the financial hurdles to a more robust relationship with Cuba.