How can Mississippi benefit from US-Cuba relations?

The Clarion-Ledger

By: Ashley Edwards and Mike McCormick

Despite the fact that Cuba is located just across the Gulf, Mississippi farmers are losing out on Cuba’s growing market to foreign competitors around the world.

Given Mississippi’s world-class ports and proximity to our island neighbor, as well as Cuba’s reliance on food imports, Mississippi is uniquely positioned to be a world leader in exports to Cuba. But Congress must lift the travel and trade embargo in order to provide efficient and economical trade opportunities for Mississippi farmers which would help support Cuba’s fastest growing sector, private entrepreneurship.

Tourism is driving private sector growth and economic development in Cuba. Lifting the travel and trade ban would be a boon for Cuban entrepreneurs, or cuentapropistas, who depend on tourism to expand and grow. This 50-year-old failed isolationist policy is infringing on Mississippians’ right to travel and trade freely and is stifling economic growth in Cuba’s private sector.

Cuba is the only country in the world to which the United States government prohibits tourist travel. Mississippians are legally allowed to travel as a tourist to North Korea and Iran, but not Cuba. Mississippians are prohibited from enjoying what is quickly becoming one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world due to our archaic Cold War policies. Congress should not be in the business of telling Mississippians where they can or cannot visit.

Vacation isn’t the only thing Mississippians are missing out on as a result of the travel ban. As millions of Americans have expressed interest in traveling to Cuba, lifting the ban would require Cuba to drastically increase agriculture imports to feed the millions of new visitors, providing tremendous opportunities for Mississippi farmers to fill that gap.

Cuba already imports up to 80 percent of its food, which currently amounts to almost $2 billion annually. But even though agriculture is Mississippi’s number one industry, supporting almost 30 percent of Mississippi’s workforce, current trade restrictions prevent Mississippi farmers from operating competitively in Cuba’s growing market.

Mississippi is a top exporter of U.S. rice and Cuba has the highest per capita rice consumption of any country in the Western Hemisphere. As recently as 2008, Cuba was an important export market for U.S. rice, but market share has been lost to foreign competitors who are allowed to offer financing – as a result of U.S. trade restrictions, American exporters are not allowed to offer financing to Cuban importers. Additional Mississippi top exports like soybeans, soybean meal, and corn will also be increasingly important for Cuba as its livestock sector continues to grow.

Overall, the U.S. used to be the No. 1 supplier of Cuban agricultural products, but we have dropped to No. 5 because of existing trade restrictions. As a top U.S. supplier of agriculture exports, expanding trade with Cuba would provide Mississippi farmers with significant benefits that are currently being lost to foreign competitors and, thus, create jobs throughout the state.

As Cuba’s tourism industry continues to grow and the country seeks to modernize its infrastructure, there is an immediate need for improvements on the island. Mississippi manufacturing, the top revenue-generating sector of the state’s economy, specifically Mississippi transportation and electronics businesses can provide Cuba with the tools and resources needed to bring Cuba into the 21st century. Mississippi is strongly positioned to address insufficiencies in Cuba’s growing agriculture and manufacturing sectors and create jobs throughout the state.

Additionally, increasing Mississippi exports to Cuba would support Mississippi’s ports, which have a significant economic impact on the entire state. The Mississippi State Port of Gulfport alone, which is located near several railroads and offers inland locations adjacent to the Mississippi river, is an economic catalyst for the entire state. Increasing exports from the Gulfport would create jobs throughout Mississippi.

In prolonging the embargo, the U.S. not only prevents Mississippi from capitalizing on Cuba’s growing markets, but it is also benefitting foreign competitors who have the ability to trade freely with Cuba.

The bottom line is this: Mississippi is in dire need of opportunities to stimulate our economy.  It is clear that, while the embargo continues to suppress economic growth in Cuba, it also infringes on tremendous opportunities for Mississippians to travel and conduct business in a promising new market only 90 miles off our country’s shores. For this reason, we’re urging Congress to pass the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act and the Agricultural Export Expansion Act.

Rarely in business or in politics are we presented with such a “win-win” proposition.

Ashley Edwards is president of Gulf Coast Business Council and Mike McCormick is President of MS Farm Bureau.  They are both serving on the Mississippi Council of Engage Cuba.