The push to end the U.S. travel and trade embargo with Cuba received a strong boost in Arkansas on Monday (April 11) as a coalition of state, federal and agricultural groups came together to put pressure on Congress to lift the 55-year old embargo.
The Engage Cuba Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit of top U.S. companies and organizations working to end the travel and trade embargo on Cuba, announced the formation of its Arkansas State Council chapter during a press conference in downtown Little Rock at the Capital Hotel.
James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, said Arkansas is “ground zero” for national efforts to lift the trade ban with the Caribbean nation. Williams said his nonprofit group is forming state councils across the U.S. to amplify pressure on Congress to move forward with legislation to remove all trade barriers with the Cuba.
“This is a tremendous opportunity for the state of Arkansas – the number one rice producing state and Cuba is the number one consuming nation per capita in the Western Hemisphere – so it is a natural market. And it is ridiculous and outrageous that Cuba can’t buy rice and other agriculture products on credit. We are 90 miles away, and they are buying their rice from Vietnam,” Williams told a group of business and government leaders at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock.
The Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist and trade activist added: “This is something that could be fixed tomorrow if Congress would just get off its butt and do its job.”
Armed with a long list of well-known statistics concerning Arkansas’ agricultural might, including the state’s position as the nation’s largest rice producer, Williams applauded the efforts of Gov. Asa Hutchinson, U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, in leading efforts to open doors to do business with Cuba.
“Arkansas is the living and breathing example of why we need to change this policy after 55 years of failure,” he said.
According to Williams, Arkansas’ top exports, including soybeans, rice and corn, are among the most in-demand products in Cuba. Opening up Cuba for trade would allow Arkansas’ agricultural industry and other businesses to reach more than 11 million new customers, he said.
Following Williams’ impassioned speech, Juan Lamigueiro Leon from the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., told the roomful of farmers and agricultural leaders gathered in Little Rock that Arkansas was once among the most active trading with his country before congressional legislation in the 1990s halted all U.S. companies or subsidiaries from doing business with Cuba.
Leon, deputy Chief of Missions for the Cuban Embassy, said leaders in his country would welcome trade with Arkansas again. In particular, he said Cuba is ready to immediately sign memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with Arkansas once Congress lifts restrictions that impede the trade of agricultural goods, including rice, poultry and other meat and grain products.
“The rice that you have is very good quality. It is preferred by the (Cuban) people,” Leon told the Arkansas rice producers at the event.
After Monday’s press conference, Williams told Talk Business and Politics that Engage Cuba has now initiated state councils in Arkansas, Tennessee, Ohio, Minnesota and Louisiana. He said the group will begin new state chapters in Texas, Arizona and Nevada next month.
Williams said Engage Cuba is now backing and lobbying for three particular bills in Congress tied to opening up travel and trade in Cuba. The Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, sponsored by Rep. Crawford, would remove any restrictions on selling products in Cuba by credit and allow U.S. companies to invest with farmers and other agriculture groups in the Caribbean nation.
The second bipartisan bill, called “The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act,” would lift all travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba. That legislation is sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and a group of seven other Republican and Democrat senators.
The most important legislation is a bill sponsored by U.S. Reps. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., and Kathy Castor, D-Fla., that would allow U.S. companies to do business directly with Cuba again, Williams said. The Engage Cuba exec believes there is enough support to get the first two bills passed before the end of 2016, but doesn’t believe Emmer and Castor’s legislation to remove the full embargo will advance through Congress until the next president is in office in 2017.
SEN. COTTON REMAINS OPPOSED TO CUBA TRADE
Williams said he has had fruitful conversations with Arkansas’ entire congressional delegation, and all but Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., appear open to backing legislation to end the Cuban travel and trade ban.
“Unfortunately, Sen. Cotton has not been supportive. It is unclear why, although it seems like everyone in the state supports it,” he said. “But, we are hopeful that with increasing education and the more he learns about the issue and the more he talks about what it means to his constituents – that he will reconsider.”
In addition to forming the state chapter for Engage Cuba, Dow Brantley, chairman of USA Rice and an Arkansas farmer, also announced that his group is working with the Washington, D.C.-based trade group to establish MOUs and credit terms for rice farmers to do business in Cuba once the congressional ban is lifted.
“Bringing Arkansas rice to Cuba is key to creating local jobs, boosting wages, and securing the long-term future for the state’s agriculture industry,” Brantley said.
Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward also appeared at the event on behalf of the Hutchinson administration. Ward was part of an Arkansas trade delegation that made a three-day trip to Cuba in the fall where the governor said he was hopeful recent efforts will 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.
Ward told the group gathered at Monday’s press event that the Hutchinson administration is committed to efforts aimed at lifting the Cuban trade ban.
“When we look at Cuba and you look at the opportunities that are there for the (state’s) agriculture industry, just about every economic analysis or economic impact survey that is done, Arkansas stands to benefit more than every other state,” he said.