Tennesseans stand to benefit from trade with Cuba

The Tennessean

By: David Plazas

Some of Tennessee's top business leaders are looking forward to the days of a deeper relationship with Cuba.

They can envision more agriculture exports, health-care investments and building roads in the communist island nation, which lacks modern infrastructure — a result of the 56-year-old Castro regime's policies.

It has been a year since the Obama administration announced that the United States was re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, and while that has allowed for embassies to open in both nations, full trade relations cannot start anew unless Congress lifts the decades-old economic embargo.

A recent poll released by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank that "promotes constructive leadership and engagement in international affairs," showed that a strong majority of Americans in four states, including Tennessee, favors lifting the embargo (58 percent) and removing travel restrictions (67 percent).

Poll results were publicly released at a panel discussion called "U.S.-Cuba Engagement: What's in it for Tennessee?" held Dec. 7 at the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Nashville.

I was one of the panelists, along with Catherine Glover, president of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry; Bill Lane, a Caterpillar Inc. senior executive; and Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies, which conducted the poll.

It also featured the involvement of poll co-sponsor Engage Cuba, a bipartisan policy group that seeks to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations and which recently announced its 16-member Tennessee State Council, which includes Glover as a member.

The panel moderator, Peter Schechter of the Atlantic Council, asked me to be a panelist in part because of my public role in Middle Tennessee and also because of my Cuban heritage; my mother and her family left Cuba in the early 1960s.

I also once headed a Spanish-language community weekly newspaper in southwest Florida and have experience covering Latin American economic, business and political issues.

Cuba lies 90 miles south of the Florida Keys and has more than 11 million people, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The tropical island has been romanticized in popular culture, through Ernest Hemingway's writings and movies such as "The Godfather." Modern shows like Discovery's "Cuban Chrome" have glamorized the classic 1950s cars that abound.

Its relationship with the former Soviet Union made travel to Cuba incredibly difficult so that mystique around Cuba grew. Since the start of normalization of relations, the number of charter flights from the U.S. to Cuba is growing and people are getting excited about Cuban cigars and opportunities for greater exchanges in sports and musical talent.

All this said, while business leaders are champing at the bit to build that relationship, a point that cannot be ignored — and which I brought up in the panel — is Cuba's dismal human rights record.

Human Rights Watch reports: "The Cuban government continues to repress dissent and discourage public criticism." The report goes into short-term detention, silencing of government critics and separation of families.

This is an area where leaders should apply pressure to U.S. and Cuban governments.

Members of Congress, from Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, whose office was represented at the panel discussion, to Sen. Bob Corker, R-Chattanooga, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will and should have a deep influence in this debate over the embargo, which has clearly been a failed policy.

Tennessee already benefits greatly from international trade and investment with other countries, such as Canada, its largest trading partner, and Japan, which provides the state more foreign direct investment than any other nation. Trade with Canada has created 170,000 jobs in the Volunteer State, and there are 179 Japanese companies in the state.

I recently had the chance to meet with Canadian Consul-General Louise Blaise and Japanese Consul-General Masami Kinefuchi at private or public meetings, and both spoke highly of the relationship between Middle Tennessee and their lands. In fact, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean was specially recognized this month at a National Day celebration honoring Emperor Akihito's 82nd birthday.

What separates Cuba from Canada and Japan is that the latter are capitalist, democratic nations with strong records on civil and human rights, fairness in business dealings and transparency.

As our state seeks to find new opportunities in Cuba, let's not allow the mystique to obscure that difference.