HAVANA — Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain has emerged as a key figure in Louisiana's efforts to build its capacity for future trade deals with Cuba.
Strain, who was elected to head the state's agriculture and forestry efforts in 2007, can quickly rattle off detailed statistics about the communist-controlled Caribbean island nation and why he sees opportunities for Louisiana to benefit from Cuba's needs.
Did you know that Cuba imports 80 percent of its food? Or that 63 percent of its imports before the U.S. issued a trade embargo five decades ago, came through the Port of New Orleans? That the country imports $250 million in poultry each year?
Those are just a sampling of the many points that Strain lively lists off in his southern drawl.
"We need to be developing these relationships," Strain said, sipping Cuban coffee in a Havana hotel lobby on Thursday.
Strain is on a five-day trade mission to Havana with Gov. John Bel Edwards and about 50 people representing business, transportation, education and other sectors.
On Tuesday, Edwards signed a series of memorandums of understanding with Cuban leaders to establish the framework for partnerships that would be in place if relations between the U.S. and Cuba are normalized and trade from the U.S. to Cuba resumes.
The trade embargo largely limits exports from the U.S. to Cuba to some food and medicine.
"There are barriers on both sides that are rooted in the law, that we need to fix," said Strain, a Republican. "(If the trade embargo is lifted), I would expect they would have $1.9 billion, $2 billion in imports. We'd like our share from Louisiana to be half a billion or more – that's realistic."
Strain, who once flirted with a potential run for governor, himself, is on his second trip to Cuba in three months, engaging in meetings with the country's diplomats in key areas including trade and agriculture.
He said it's surreal, but he's enjoying learning about the culture.
"We have a great deal in common," he said. "The exchange of information is very important as we meet the new challenges ahead."
Edwards, a Democrat, has said he expects that the trade embargo will be lifted, which will take action from Congress. Edwards told The Advocate that he plans to have conversations in the coming weeks with the state's congressional delegation about the effort.
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Count Strain among the most vocal advocates for Louisiana's post-embargo opportunities – as well as one of the most enthusiastic ambassador for the state in its meetings with Cuban leaders.
During meetings this week, he has frequently been the first of the group to clap, offer thanks and generally cheer on the Cuban diplomats. He's presented many with autographed copies of John Folse's Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine, affirming that Folse is among his favorite chefs.
On Thursday, Strain and other leaders met with officials from the Agrarian University of Havana, located in a lush rural setting outside the Cuban capital city.
C. Antihus Alexander Hernandez Gomez, vice rector and professor at the university, said that there has been a slight uptick in interest in agriculture sectors.
The school has about 4,380 students, and has partnerships with 29 countries.
Strain, a veterinarian by trade, diligently took notes and asked several questions about the school's veterinary medicine programs.
"We have a great deal in common," Strain said.
Strain said that Cuban leaders have expressed a desire to develop more agriculture on the island, lessening its reliance on some types of imports.
HAVANA — Gov. John Bel Edwards on Tuesday signed a series of agreements with Cuban officials…
He said that increased poultry production in Cuba would mean an increased need for soybeans and other products grown in Louisiana that are used for feed.
"There are many things we can share together," he said.
Don Pierson, the head of Louisiana Economic Development, said that agriculture has been central to Louisiana's historic relationship with Cuba. "There are many pathways for our academic interests and our business interests to lead to a very productive future," he said.
Pierson said that Louisiana and Cuba can benefit from research related to floods, drought and diseases that threaten crops and livestock.
"We're hopeful today that we begin a conversation and a long-term partnership to address these challenges."