Texas business leaders join push to open Cuba for more trade, travel

Dallas Morning Star News

By: Jill Cowan

Advocates hoping to help businesses cash in on loosening trade restrictions with Cuba say Texas would be a key economic benefactor.

The national group Engage Cuba announced on Thursday that it was launching a Texas state council -- comprised of more than 40 business leaders and officials so far -- who will push for Congress to lift remaining trade and travel bans.

"This is an extraordinary opportunity," said Dave Shaw, president of Texas Lyceum, a leadership and policy group. "It's not very common that Texas gets to develop a new trading partner in its region of the world."

In particular, Engage Cuba leaders highlighted that the nation relies heavily on agricultural imports, averaging about $2 billion each year.

According to the organization, there's also a close alignment between Cuba's major imports and Texas' export products. For example, Cuba was the largest market for U.S. long-grain rice, while Texas ranks 5th in state rice exports. In 2014, those exports added up to $92.8 million.

Chris Wallace, president of the Texas Business Association, said the state's "small, midsize, to large companies" in sectors from ranching to software to energy could see pieces of the action if the trade embargo with Cuba were lifted.

Port officials in Houston and Corpus Christi said they saw big opportunities in a growing Cuban market, both for the state as a whole and for their respective local economies.

"While we've done business in Cuba over the years ... we believe there is a lot of upside for not only the state of Texas, but the Houston region," said Theldon Branch, III, a member of the Port of Houston Port Commission.

In 2014, Texas sent $131,327 in goods to Cuba, down from $96.2 million in 2008, according to Engage Cuba data.

Though American businesses -- air carriers and hospitality companies, especially -- quickly started chomping at the bit when the Obama administration lightened travel restrictions, broader engagement with Cuba still faces political opposition from lawmakers who say the U.S. shouldn't support an oppressive regime.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose father fled Cuba as a teenager, has been a high profile critic of the President Barack Obama's policies when it comes to Cuba. In March, Cruz slammed Obama, when he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the country since its 1959 revolution.

Beyond the economic benefits of increasing imports and exports, Engage Cuba President James Williams said creating closer business ties will help expose Cubans to American ways.

Opening the door to more American tourists, he said, will help support small businesses on the island, promoting free enterprise -- a very Texan value.

"This is an issue that's been neglected and stuck in a different time," he said. "But Texas lawmakers are common sense, and with the power of American engagement around the world, we're expecting a favorable response."

Wallace said his organization has a "very good track record" of working with the state's congressional delegation on various issues.

And he said that, while state legislators have limited power when it comes to international trade policies, Gov. Greg Abbott's trip to Havana late last year was a promising sign.

"We want to make sure we have a total open market with the businesses of Cuba, which, frankly, need the products we are known for here in Texas," he said. "Lifting this embargo will be key for us."

The Texas council is Engage Cuba's eighth state group. It has three pieces of legislation that it is targeting:

*The Agricultural Export Expansion Act of 2015, which has six Texas co-sponsors and would allow American farmers to offer credit to Cuban importers.

*The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act.

*The Cuba Trade Act of 2015.