Tennessee seen as key player in push to normalize relations with Cuba

The Commercial Appeal

By: Michael Collins

WASHINGTON — Tennessee may be less than a thousand miles from Cuba in terms of geography. Politically and culturally, they are worlds apart.

But while the Volunteer State may not be the most obvious player in the campaign to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba, James Williams thinks Tennessee can play a role — and an important one at that.

Engage Cuba, a nonprofit group headed by Williams, is targeting Tennessee and a handful of other states as it works to persuade Congress to lift travel and commercial restrictions against Cuba now that diplomatic relations between the two countries have been restored for the first time in half a century.

"There's a lot Tennessee stands to gain from a business perspective, but Tennessee is also a leader in culture — from music to education," Williams said. "There's a lot that Cuba can learn from Tennessee as well."

Over the next few months, Engage Cuba will be reaching out to Tennessee's agricultural groups, business leaders and others to persuade them to help make the case to Congress that it's past time to lift restrictions against traveling to Cuba and selling agriculture products and other goods. Tennessee is one of a handful of states being targeted, along with Iowa, Georgia and Arkansas.

The group is focusing on Tennessee, in part, because the state has a lot of agricultural and manufacturing products that could benefit from opening up the market in Cuba, Williams said.

The state is a top exporter of soybeans and cotton. The state's auto-manufacturing industry also could find a booming business in Cuba, whose streets are jammed with vintage models from the 1950s or older. "They need everything from car parts to full cars," Williams said.

Tennessee is also home to major airports and shipping facilities, such as Memphis-based FedEx, which would gain from easing the restrictions on doing business with Cuba, Williams said.

On the political front, the state's two U.S. senators — Republicans Bob Corker of Chattanooga and Lamar Alexander of Maryville — hold influential seats on committees that could position them as important players in the normalizing of relations with Cuba.

Corker is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making him the chamber's top foreign policy leader. Alexander chairs the Senate Health, Education Labor and Pensions Committee and also sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Both are known as pro-business lawmakers who are willing to buck GOP leaders from time to time, and advocacy groups see them as potential allies in the campaign to lift the restrictions against Cuba.

"Corker has done a very nimble job at debating this issue, thinking about this issue," Williams said. "He will at least admit what the facts are, which is we've had a policy for 54 years that has not worked. He hasn't been publicly saying what he thinks a new solution should be. But that's a great place to start."

Williams thinks Alexander also could be persuaded to ease some of the restrictions, even though he did not support a recent amendment to lift the travel ban to Cuba for one year.

The GOP-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee voted to add the amendment to a 2016 spending bill, along with other amendments that would allow Cuba to buy certain agriculture products on credit and end the prohibition against any ship that has docked in Cuba from loading or unloading any freight in the United States for 180 days.

Regardless of his vote against lifting the travel ban, Alexander said in a statement that after a half-century of almost no relationship with Cuba, "it's time to think seriously about what the relationship should be for the next 50 years."

Corker said he also "will continue to carefully evaluate the most appropriate way forward for the U.S.-Cuba relationship."

Williams finds the senators' responses encouraging and believes that, with polls showing an overwhelming majority of Americans and Cubans in favor of lifting the travel and economic restrictions, it's just a matter of time until Congress comes around.

"We're at the beginning of this process," he said, "but we think the force of history is on our side."