Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Friday afternoon he believes his trip to Cuba will open doors for future and near-term trade, travel and cultural exchanges, but urged caution against moving too quickly until the government of the Caribbean nation signals its intentions to deal openly and fairly with private businesses.
Hutchinson told reporters gathered at the State Capitol for a media briefing following his trip to Cuba that he was excited about the momentum that has taken place since President Obama announced that the U.S. planned to normalize relations with the Communist island country in December.
“This just reflects the historic time of re-engagement after literally 55 years of broken diplomatic relations,” the governor said.
During his 30-minute media availability, the popular Republican governor gave several anecdotes of his trip to Cuba with a large delegation of business and state officials. He said now that the trip is completed, the next step is to stay in contact with Cuban economic and ministry officials and move gradually toward better relations between the two countries.
Hutchinson said he was encouraged with the conversations and several meetings he had with Cuban ministry officials. He expressed some surprise with the amount of business activity he saw taking place there among both U.S. and other foreign entities in the trade-blocked country.
“Just to give a picture of Cuba at this historic juncture, when I was (there) we saw Brazil investments in infrastructure at the Port of Mariel, I saw European visitors coming to the (nation), and the president of Vietnam was in Havana meeting at high levels, as I was, marketing Vietnamese products – including rice.”
Although Cuban trade and business opportunities are only available through cash-only transactions, Hutchinson said he was hopeful that recent efforts will continue to move forward to open credit markets and remove travel restrictions, and expedite possible deals between Arkansas’ agriculture, manufacturing and poultry sector and the island country.
“The point of those different connections we saw while we were there indicates to me the significant momentum for trade (and travel) under the new rules that President Obama has initiated,” Hutchinson said. “These are historic times, and while there is significant momentum, I caution that we have to proceed carefully with a great deal of patience…”
Hutchinson added that as a result of the increased trade, travel, cultural exchange and foreign investment in Cuba over the next several weeks, months and years, “I am convinced that what you are going to see is a growing public dynamic in the United States for a change in the rules and continuing down the path of re-engagement with Cuba.”
Despite those great opportunities, Hutchison also saw a Cuba that was lost in time. He said many of the cars Cubans drove, and buildings that were constructed prior to the 1960 embargo are still the same. He used that illustration to also make the case the Castro-led regime was using the same revolutionary ideas from that time to govern the nation.
“(Cuba) is also in a sense lost in time because there’s continued discussion by the leadership of the Cuban government about the revolution, about their angst with the United States, and about their commitment to the principles of the revolution and centralized government,” he said.
Hutchinson said the real test for an open Cuba will be if the government will embrace capitalism and friendly relations with the businesses that come to the country to trade. “There is a different dynamic (at) the higher levels of the Cuban government than when you get on the street and get to talk with the entrepreneurs. There (with the people) is a totally different dialogue and … receptively to U.S. markets and the desire for that trade.”
“They have a ways to go,” the governor said of the Castro-led government. “I think you are going to see continued pressure and the first great opportunity of course is the extension of credit on our agriculture sales and secondly, the loosening of travel restrictions on U.S. citizens going to Cuba.”
Before Hutchinson’s trip to Cuba earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Department of the Treasury on Sept. 18 announced additional revisions to the Cuban Assets Control Regulations (CACR) and Export Administration Regulations (EAR). Those new rules built off changes were put into place by the Treasury and Commerce departments at the beginning of the year after President Obama laid out the new direction toward U.S. relations with Cuba around Christmas.
Still, the U.S. embargo on Cuba cannot be lifted without legislation, and Obama will likely need congressional support to fully restore diplomatic relations with the island nation. And although he shared the Obama administration’s views that opening up trade and travel in Cuba is good for U.S. relations, Hutchinson said he believes that Congress must take the lead instead of the president making additional executive orders to speed up trade and travel.
“While (the president) has initial authority, the next step should come from the Congress of the United States,” the governor and former Third District Congressman said. “Congress has to sense the changing mood of the American public – and I believe they are – and even though we are in a political season I suspect there to be growing momentum and a greater willingness on Congress to re-address this issue. But the next step should be by Congress, versus further executive orders by the president.”
During his briefing with reporters, Hutchinson also touched briefly on a number of other topics, ranging from robust tax revenue collections and the Arkansas economy and to the completion of a long-awaited consultant’s report on the Private Option that was delivered this week to the Health Care Reform Legislative Task Force.
Hutchinson said he was pleased with Friday’s revenue report that showed Arkansas tax collections well above forecast at $49.9 million or 3.9%. “This is good momentum for our economy in Arkansas, but we will keep our eye on it month-to-month.”
On the task force study that was delivered as expected Thursday by The Stephen Group consulting firm to Arkansas lawmakers, Hutchinson said he had not yet seen a copy of the report. “That report is under legislative wraps … but I am anxious to see it,” the governor said.