Coast could cash in on Cuba


By: Justin Vicory

Gulfport -- Lifting the 50-year-old trade embargo with Cuba could be an economic boon to South Mississippi.

As relations become more normalized between the United States and Cuba, an advocacy group is pressing business leaders and legislators to open the doors to Cuba even more, promising a surge in commerce on the Coast if the embargo is lifted.

Engage Cuba, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, gathered Mississippi business leaders Wednesday at the Great Southern Club in Gulfport. Speakers included President of Engage Cuba James Williams; director of the Gulf Business Council Ashley Edwards and president of Specialty Contractors and Associates Dave Dennis, and Hayes Dent, president of Hayes Dent Public Strategies.

Williams said the Coast would benefit because of its proximity to the island nation 90 miles away.

“We want people from Alabama and Mississippi to be supportive of this because it’ll benefit you,” he said. “Particularly from an agricultural, manufacturing and hospitality sector.”

The top Cuban imports of rice, soy beans and poultry are agricultural products the state of Mississippi is known for and has in great supply. Getting them to Cuba would involve Coast ports and the shipping industry.

Cuba now gets most of its rice from Vietnam, Williams said.

“It could go from taking 36 days to less than 36 hours to get rice to Cuba from here,” he said.

“Proximity. Distance is king. That’s what it’s about. That’s why we are here on the Coast and in Mississippi.”

Since restrictions began lifting in 2014, a large percentage of the Cuban population — close to 40 percent — has gone into the private sector. This has led to a rapidly expanding tourism and hospitality sector. It has also increased the country’s need for additional imports.

Williams estimated up to $1 billion increase in trade commerce with Cuba if the embargo lifts. Currently less than ten percent of Cuban imports come from the United States, but the Dominican Republic, which has normal trade relations, imports 60 to 80 percent.

Restrictions on trade have limited the amount of business the U.S. can have with the country. The U.S. allows only cash-on-demand transactions. Lifting the embargo would let businesses, such as private banks, deal in credit, the most prevalent form of business.

The embargo also prevents American tourists from traveling to Cuba, except on educational tours.

“The ban has held Cuba back and American back for the last 50 years,” Williams said.

Engage Cuba announced Wednesday the launch of the Engage Cuba Mississippi State Council. The council is a group of Mississippi agriculture, business, manufacturing, health care, education and government leaders who seek to build congressional support for lifting the embargo.

“This is the part of the country that will benefit more than anyone else. We can get products made here, shipped here, sent there tomorrow,” he said.