Engage Cuba council launches in Colorado as part of effort to lift travel and trade embargo

Denver Post

The United States has more ties to Cuba than just Miami, including in telecommunications, health care, biotechnology and agriculture. Engage Cuba, a new advocacy organization, wants you to know that.

The group launched its Colorado State Council on Tuesday in front of an audience of about 70 people at Denver’s World Trade Center. It’s part of an ongoing effort to gain support for the end of the travel and trade embargo with Cuba.

“Not all opportunities reside in the 305,” or the Miami area code, said panelist and CRL Associates CEO Maria Garcia Berry, who is Cuban.

Garcia Berry was joined on the launch panel by Engage Cuba senior adviser Luke Albee, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle, Colorado Farm Bureau president Don Shawcroft and Western Union CEO Hikmet Ersek.

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One point of interest in Cuba for Colorado is the state’s agricultural capacity. Cuba imports 80 percent of its food, said Bennet, who is a co-sponsor of the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 bill.

But America is losing its hold on agricultural exports to countries that are able to offer proper financing, Shawcroft said. “The Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act, which is one component of the larger embargo, prohibits U.S. exporters from extending credit to Cuban purchasers,” he said.

As a result, the U.S. has fallen from its position as the No. 1 supplier of farm exports to Cuba to No. 5, behind the European Union, Brazil, Argentina and Vietnam. The drop from No. 1 happened in 2011, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. Of Cuba’s nearly $2 billion of agricultural imports in 2015, just 7.5 percent came from the United States, Shawcroft said.

“We hold a distinct geographic advantage over those countries, but the hassle makes it easier for Cuba to import from countries far away,” he said.

Travel restrictions are another roadblock impeding interaction between the U.S. and Cuba. In July, Denver-based Frontier Airlines received a tentative OK from the U.S. Department of Transportation for a daily round-trip flight between Miami and Havana. No direct flights were granted from Denver, though Biffle said he thinks “Denver will be on that list” in the future.

“Cuba is the only country in the world that the United States government limits Americans from traveling to,” Biffle said. “You can go to North Korea, but you can’t go to Cuba.”

Colorado is the 12th state to join the Engage Cuba advocacy coalition.