New bipartisan Idaho council wants Congress to lift embargo on travel, trade with Cuba

The Spokesman-Review

By: Betsy Z. Russell

An array of Idaho state and business leaders launched the “Engage Cuba Idaho State Council” today, following the lead of 10 other states pushing for Congress to end the travel and trade ban on Cuba. Gov. Butch Otter, who led a state trade mission to Cuba in 2007, is chairing the new council.

“I’ve long been a supporter of opening up trade and other relationships with Cuba, even if our governments are unable to come to some bigger accommodation,” Otter said in a statement. “My travels to Cuba convince me that the people there have the same goals, the same ambitions and the same needs as we do here in Idaho. We both want more freedom; we both want more self-determination; and we both want fewer restrictions on our ability to participate in the global marketplace of goods and ideas.”

According to the U.S. Embassy in Havana, “Travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by statute.” However, U.S. travel to Cuba for “12 categories of authorized travel” is allowed, including family visits, journalistic activity, humanitarian projects, professional research and certain others. It’s not easy for Americans to travel in Cuba; U.S. credit and debit cards can’t be used, so travelers have to bring cash.

The council wants to open up both travel and trade. “Idaho farmers, dairymen and businesses are stuck on the sidelines as our foreign competitors continue to take advantage of Cuba’s growing markets,” said James Williams, president of the Engage Cuba Coalition in Washington, D.C., and a former staffer for John Kerry’s presidential campaign. “Opening up trade with Cuba would provide tremendous opportunities for Idaho’s agriculture and manufacturing sectors and support Cuba’s growing private sector.”

Otter has long been an advocate of trade with Cuba; prior to leading the 2007 state trade mission, he’d visited the island nation three times on lobbyist-funded trips as an Idaho congressman. Otter said he and then-Cuban President Fidel Castro “struck a respectful friendship,” and Otter tells stories of Castro referring to Otter as “my cowboy friend.”

The “Engage Cuba” effort is a bipartisan one; members of the new Idaho council range from state Senate Commerce Chair Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, to House Assistant Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise. Others include state Agriculture Director Celia Gould; Arthur “Skip” Oppenheimer, chairman and CEO of Oppenheimer Companies Inc.; Frank Muir, president of the Idaho Potato Commission; Greg Koenig, owner of Koenig Vineyards; and Kevin Loveless, owner of Global Travel, among others.

Said Loveless, “Idahoans love to travel and experience new things and places. … The time has come for ending the embargo and to allow Americans the same abilities as Canadians and Europeans to visit this island paradise.”

Ivan Castillo, chairman of the Idaho Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said, “Restricting American freedom and business has not brought about the democratic change in Cuba that we hoped it would. By ending the embargo with Cuba, we hope to expand export opportunities here in Idaho, while also benefitting Cuba’s growing private sector.”

The embargo on travel to Cuba has been in place for 55 years.