State, Mobile leaders call for open trade with Cuba

By: Lawrence Specker

Elected officials and business leaders gathered Tuesday at a Mobile shipping terminal to call for open trade relations with Cuba – and to announce the launch of a new group to promote the issue.

State Sens. J.T. "Jabo" Waggoner and Vivian Figures, as well as Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, were among those on hand to establish the formation of the Alabama State Council of the Engage Cuba Coalition. Engage Cuba, which describes itself as "the leading advocacy organization working to end the travel and trade embargo on Cuba," already has started state councils in eight other states.

Speakers at Tuesday's press conference were uniformly upbeat about the prospect of open relations with Cuba, describing it as a win-win for Alabama businesses and the Cuban people.

Jimmy Lyons, executive director of the Alabama Port Authority, was among several speakers to note that before the United States imposed an embargo on Cuba in the early sixties, trade connections were strong between the port of Mobile and the island nation. Both sides suffered when those connections were cut, he said.

"For over five decades we've had policies regarding the nation of Cuba that really have not worked, that have not worked well for anybody, for the Cuban people, and really have not worked well for us," he said. He'd seen progress in a recent visit to Cuba, he said, but more could come only if Congress passed measures to normalize trade relationships.

"Trade is the way to build friendships between countries and between peoples," Lyons said, "and that's what we're all about, is trade."

"If you back through the history," seconded Stimpson, "there's probably no city in America that had closer relationships to Cuba than Mobile. And hopefully if we can get a few things sorted out, we'll be able to continue that."

Stimpson described trade with Cuba as "a golden opportunity for us," a view that also was espoused by James Williams, the president of Engage Cuba. "This is a state that probably has more to gain, more quickly, than any other place in the country," Williams said.

One example was offered by Johnny Adams, executive director of the Alabama Poultry Association, who said Alabama already ships 10,000 tons of poultry per month to Cuba. That figure could rise dramatically, he said, if the current "cumbersome" limitations on the exchange were lifted.

"This is one of these issues that defies gravity, common sense, logic, emotion," said Williams. "We've been having a policy for 55 years that on all objective merits has failed to meet any of its intentions."

Williams said Engage Cuba wasn't out to endorse undemocratic policies or whitewash failings of the Cuban regime over the years. "This is a strategy to create change, to create progress," he said. "At the same time, this is one of those policy areas which is a true unicorn. Where you get to do the right thing for the United States, the right thing for economic interests or national security interests, at the same time you're helping the well-being of 11.5 million people who are in real need of opportunity."

Essentially, he said, Engage Cuba's mission is to connect Washington legislators with state, local and industry officials who can make the case for opening relations. In Alabama, those leaders will include State Sens. Waggoner and Figures, who were on hand to highlight bipartisan support in the Alabama Legislature.

"It is time that we lift the embargo and other trade barriers that we have with the Republic of Cuba," Figures said. "We need to expand our global marketplace."

Waggoner said Alabama was sending two formal resolutions on the issue to Congress, including one titled "Urging Congress to Normalize Relations with the Cuban Government and Lift the Current Embargo and Other Trade Barriers with the Republic of Cuba."

"They need our products," said Waggoner. "We have the ability to send them our products ... We have world-class state docks ready to move these products south into Cuba. Hopefully Congress will read these two resolutions and know that we in Alabama are serious."

Engage Cuba already had established state chapters in Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Ohio, Tennessee and Texas. The organization plans to launch its Mississippi chapter on Wednesday.