Louisiana could soon take more steps toward developing deeper relations with Cuba, even though federal restrictions continue to hamper trade efforts.
The Legislature last year directed the Louisiana Economic Development agency to examine ways for Louisiana to foster a better relationship with the Caribbean island nation amid increased efforts toward ending a five-decade embargo on most dealings with the country.
The agency's 12-page report that was recently turned over to lawmakers stresses that the state's trade options are currently limited.
"This could change significantly, however, with the lifting of the embargo and a rapid influx of (foreign direct investment) into Cuba," it adds.
The future of the United States' relationship with Cuba remains unclear under Republican President Donald Trump. Trump has both threatened to roll back efforts that his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, made toward normalizing relations and signaled that he's conducting a full review of the U.S-Cuba ties.
Obama began restoring diplomatic ties to Cuba in 2015, loosening some restrictions, including a ban on travel.
Ending the embargo that restricts most trade will take congressional action, but after Obama's administration signaled a shift, the Legislature unanimously agreed that Louisiana should look for potential advantages.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, said he views Trump's position as a potential setback that could slow opportunities for Louisiana's agriculture industry.
"I still believe the overall trajectory remains positive, and we are moving toward freer trade with Cuba," Edwards said in an interview Friday. "We're going to do everything we can under the current constraints."
Louisiana has led all states in exports to Cuba over the past decade, totaling more than $1.4 billion since 2006.
"It's a tiny fraction of what it would be with normalized relations," Edwards said of the state's current trade. "They're importing rice from Vietnam that's of lesser quality, and it takes 30 days to get there."
He said he supports a suggestion in the LED report that the state look for ways to strengthen ties to Cuba outside of trade. "There's a lot we can do to improve our relationship," he said.
In October, Edwards and several other officials, including Mike Strain, the commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry, traveled to Cuba to meet with officials there. Strain also traveled to Cuba in July.
The state spent about $150,000 on the five-day trade mission in October, about $35,000 of which went toward Edwards' state-mandated security detail.
Gov. John Bel Edwards says he feels confident that Louisiana is well-positioned to benefit f…
While in Havana, Edwards signed a series of agreements with the Cuban leaders to develop deeper partnerships. Those include agreements between Cuba and ports in Lake Charles, New Orleans and LaPlace to share data, market information, training, modernization strategies and other information.
The state Department of Agriculture and Forestry and Cuba's Agriculture Business Group also will share information about irrigation, renewable energy and other agribusiness issues.
The report says the governor's trip "brought focus to understanding what's possible, what's realistic and what's unfeasible in terms of Louisiana's economic exchange opportunities with Cuba in the future."
"Results will not be generated through overnight successes, but by long-term relationships that have been newly established or renewed at important levels of Cuban government and society," it says. "These relationships will be critically important if the U.S. embargo is lifted by Congress, positioning Louisiana businesses for significantly increased exports to a 'new' market that is hungry for their product."
The report urges other state agencies and entities to look for partnership opportunities similar to the ports and the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry, but it cautions against wasting resources on activities that could have limited benefit unless Congress acts.
U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre, recently announced that he has joined Congress' bipartisan Cuba Working Group, which is pushing efforts to build the U.S.-Cuba relationship. Higgins, whose district includes rice-rich Acadiana, cited his support as part of the effort to grow the nation's economy.
The opening of trade between the United States and Cuba could be a boon across several indus…
“Americans have suffered through a stagnant economy for almost a decade. Jobs have been scarce, particularly in southern Louisiana. I think it's time to start trading with Cuba, to bolster the economy in the 3rd Congressional District," Higgins said in a statement. "If there are opportunities for our farmers to trade with Cuba, then that’s something we’re definitely going to want to look at.”
Higgins' spokesman didn't respond to a request for additional details.
U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, is a vocal supporter of improved U.S.-Cuba trade relations. Abraham traveled to Cuba last year to learn more about opportunities.
A nationwide public opinion poll conducted by Pew in December found that nearly 75 percent of respondents favored ending the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.