Coalition seeks grassroots support in Arkansas for end to Cuban embargo

Southwest Times Record

LITTLE ROCK — Engage Cuba, a coalition of businesses and organizations advocating an end to the travel and trade embargo on Cuba, said Monday it is launching an Arkansas group to organize grassroots support for a change in U.S. policy toward the island nation.

The coalition’s Arkansas State Council, made up of agribusiness, community and academic leaders, will be its fifth state council, joining similar groups in Louisiana, Minnesota, Ohio and Tennessee.

“Arkansas is the living and breathing example of why we need to change this policy after 55 years of failure,” Engage Cuba President James Williams said in a news release. “The fact that Cubans are now eating rice from Vietnam instead of Arkansas is an outrage that needs to be changed.”

Dow Brantley, chairman of USA RICE, noted that agriculture is Arkansas’ top industry and that the state produces about 50 percent of the U.S. rice crop every year.

“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,” he said.

The coalition also released statements from U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., and U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro.

“When it comes to U.S.-Cuba relations, we have been running the same play over and over for the past few decades and nothing has changed,” Boozman said. “If we really want to bring about change, we need to try a new approach. Normalizing relations will allow us to remain competitive and create jobs at home, while pushing for change in Cuba.”

Crawford said he traveled to Cuba to learn more about its agricultural markets and identify ways to maximize the benefits of trade for the Cuban people and Arkansas. He expressed support for “incremental” change, such as allowing American exporters to sell agricultural goods to Cuba on credit, which currently is not allowed under the embargo.

“For our policies to change in this Congress or the next, businesses and lawmakers must continue to build support for these incremental changes which yield positive results for Arkansas and the Cuban people,” Crawford said.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the first sitting governor to lead a trade mission to Cuba in recent decades, also has voiced support for allowing the sale of American agricultural products to Cuba on credit.

Not all Arkansas lawmakers support easing U.S. sanctions on Cuba, however. U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has called restoring diplomatic relations between the two nations “a grave mistake.”

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