Engage Cuba’s Louisiana Council says industry to gain from embargo removal

Greater Baton Rouge Business Report

By: Sam Barnes

Seeking to tap into shifting public opinion and changing politics, a Washington, D.C.-based group recently announced the creation of a Louisiana Council expressly dedicated to promoting the removal of trade barriers with Cuba.

Engage Cuba’s Louisiana State Council, unveiled Feb. 25 at the Old Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge, is comprised of leaders from across Louisiana’s agricultural, manufacturing and business communities, and is the third such council in the U.S.

While Engage Cuba President James Williams says Louisiana’s agricultural industry would benefit the most, initially, from lifting the embargo—Cuba is the largest consumer of rice per capita in the Western Hemisphere—manufacturing and other industries would profit in the long term.

Williams addressed a small gathering during the council’s launch event, along with Benjy Rayburn, Louisiana’s assistant commissioner of agriculture, and Joe Accardo Jr., executive director of the Ports Association of Louisiana. “Cuba is currently trying to develop its energy industry because they’ve been so reliant on Venezuelan crude,” Williams said. “This is definitely an area where Louisiana can meet a need. We’re also beginning to see more interest in light manufacturing and biotechnology.”

He added that a new Economic Development Zone in Mariel, Cuba’s closest seaport to the U.S., has the greatest potential for industrial and manufacturing development by U.S. companies. The port was recently dredged to 60 feet deep to support the supersized, New Panamax shipping vessels. “Mariel already has 10 projects that have been given the green light, but they’re not U.S. investors,” Williams said.

Accardo said Louisiana’s port directors are excited about the potential for importers and exporters. “Many years ago, before the embargo, the Port of New Orleans was the biggest exporter/importer with Cuba,” Accardo adds. “Even today, some rice is transported to Cuba through the Port of Lake Charles, but there are restrictions that limit what can be done.”

The inability of U.S. companies to offer credit is the primary obstacle. “We’re not allowed to offer private credit of any kind, so it has to be cash on delivery, and no trade is done that way in the world,” Williams said. “So even though we are a natural exporter to Cuba, they get their rice from Vietnam and Brazil because they can get 180- or 365-day terms. It’s just that simple.”

Ultimately, Engage Cuba and the Louisiana Council would like to see the full repeal of economic sanctions to allow for full-scale U.S. investment and development. While President Barack Obama has taken steps to ease sanctions, only Congress has the power to completely remove the embargo.

“Louisiana is important from a congressional standpoint,” Williams said. “We are working with Sen. Bill Cassidy to try to raise awareness. Also, U.S. representatives Charles Boustany (R-3rd District) and Ralph Abraham (R-5th District) have been strong supporters of this.”