By: Emma Hinchliffe
The politicians, business leaders and advocates joined the new Texas State Council for Engage Cuba, a national organization that lobbies from Washington, D.C. to end the U.S. travel ban and trade embargo with Cuba. Texas will be the group's eighth statewide effort.
The Texans who joined Engage Cuba's new council include leaders from the Port of Houston Authority, the University of Texas, the Texas Association of Business and Houston's city government. The group plans to hold events in the state to push for free trade with Cuba in the fall.
We feel that calling for an end to the travel ban and trade embargo is a necessity for Texas business," Texas Association of Business President Chris Wallace said during a media call Thursday morning. "They (Cubans) frankly need the products we are known for here in Texas, particularly around agriculture."
Engage Cuba's main efforts center on pushing for three bills currently in Congress, the Agricultural Export Expansion Act of 2015, the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act and the Cuba Trade Act of 2015.
For Texas, opening free trade with Cuba would mean an expanded market for the state's agricultural products. During the first half of the 20th century, Cuba was the largest market for U.S. long-grain rice exports, with many producers concentrated on the Gulf Coast. The Peterson Institute for International Economics estimated that U.S. exports to Cuba could reach $6 billion a year nationwide.
U.S. trade with Cuba would also increase exports through the Port of Houston. Port of Houston commissioner Theldon Branch said Thursday that the port has long shipped non-embargoed items to Cuba, but that full trade would greatly increase business for the port.
"We believe there is a lot of upside for not only the state of Texas, but for the Houston region," Branch said.
Cuba's proximity to Texas, too, means the state will be a key player if Cuba becomes a full trade partner with the United States.
"This is an extraordinary and rare opportunity," said Dave Shaw, president of the statewide leadership group Texas Lyceum. "It's not very common Texas gets to develop a new trading partner in our region."