This winter N.J. can benefit from a trade thaw with Cuba

New Jersey Star-Ledger

By: Marisol Bonachea

Recently, my business was approved by the Cuban government to access the island's only solar salt mine co-op, with prices of importing salt a fraction of what they are from other nations. As an American entrepreneur with an in-depth understanding of the dire consequences of the salt shortage in New Jersey, I was thrilled to be able to offer the New Jersey Department of Transportation a common-sense solution that would benefit all involved.

History was made when President Obama called for an end to the Cuban trade embargo in his final State of the Union.

It's a topic deserving of attention, especially because of what a policy change on U.S. trade with Cuba could mean for the people of New Jersey and for businesses operating in the Garden State. 

As a Cuban-American small business owner specializing in logistics and transportation in New Jersey, I often worry about the fact that our state is ill equipped to deal with the de-icing of our roads due to a salt shortage in the U.S.  While we have yet to see our first big snowfall of 2016, an icy mix that can cripple New Jersey's roadways is never far away.

When New Jersey was hit with several snowstorms last March, my company, Escambray Leasing, rented our trucks to the state to clean major roads, even though there was little salt available for de-icing. Needless to say, limited access to salt means that every winter lives are endangered by slippery, icy roads, and tax payer money is being wasted with the added hours trucks like mine have to spend on our roads. In our twenty-first century global economy, this is an unacceptable reality. I have a simple solution for our state: import salt from Cuba.

As our resources dwindle, we are spending huge amounts of tax payer money importing salt from countries as far away as Chile — located over 5,233 miles away. Meanwhile, Cuba, located only 1,295 miles from New Jersey, is a cheaper and closer option for salt exports.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Congress– which continues to cling to a 50-year-old trade embargo against Cuba– doesn't care much about making common-sense decisions when it comes to trade with the island.  Since the embargo is still firmly in place despite the one-year anniversary of thawed relations between the two countries, I am still currently waiting for approval to import Cuban salt from the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the United States Treasury.

While salt is granular in nature, the overall issue is not. Going through the process of trying to import salt, I had to ask myself – why is the Cuban government moving faster than our own government to help support an American-owned business? The U.S. Congress should not be in the business of stifling American entrepreneurs and our local economies.

Just as the President reiterated in his final State of the Union - it is time for the U.S. to end the trade embargo and travel restrictions with Cuba. And because of New Jersey's large Cuban-American population – estimated to be the second largest in the nation– we are one of the few states best positioned to benefit from our intimate understanding of the island and the opportunities that come with free trade.

Why should Cuban-Americans from New Jersey, or any Americans for that matter, be denied the chance to invest and expand their businesses into Cuba, while Europeans and Asians take advantage of an island located in our own backyard? Let's give the Garden State economy a boost and show that New Jersey knows how to be innovative.  New Jersey thrives on exports – it supports nearly 166,000 jobs in the state and added $36.6 billion to our state economy in 2014. Our state can benefit even further by trading with Cuba.

We need to urge our Members of Congress to stop the outdated 50-year-old policy that hasn't brought any benefits to Cubans living on the island, and has hurt potential business for those living here in New Jersey. The U.S. denying the Cuban and the American people the chance to explore opportunities together– whether it be salt or other types of business–makes no sense in the 21st century. It is time to change policy to let Americans travel freely and to end the embargo.

Our vibrant business community can build a bridge to Cuba from right here in New Jersey, one that will improve of our respective economies and improve people's lives in both countries. I hope our state elected officials hear that message and work to end the embargo quickly. A permanent thaw in our trade policy with Cuba will not only benefit New Jersey's roads this winter but our entire nation's economy. 

Marisol Bonachea is founder and president of Escambray Leasing in South Amboy, N.J., and member of Engage Cuba, a bipartisan organization dedicated to mobilizing American businesses and non-profit groups to support the ongoing U.S.-Cuba normalization process. She is also a member of the National Latina Business Women Association.