Mississippi Mulls Trade with Cuba in Trump Presidency

The Clarion Ledger

By: Sarah Fowler

In the months since President Obama signed an executive order lifting trade restrictions with Cuba, Mississippi has jumped at the chance to benefit economically.

Last week, president-elect Donald Trump set off a firestorm of speculation after he tweeted he may reverse Obama’s executive order and end trade with Cuba.

“If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate the deal,” the tweet read.

Last month, the Mississippi Development Authority hosted an economic summit offering insights on business relations with Cuba.

In February, MDA is taking Mississippians on a business development mission to Cuba to help “establish those export relationships,” spokesperson Jeff Rent previously told The Clarion-Ledger.

Rent said MDA hasn’t changed plans for the trade mission to Cuba but would not comment further.

Gov. Phil Bryant, who has a close relationship with Trump, said he felt Trump would act within the best interest of Americans. The governor also called into question the deal Obama made with Cuba.

"I believe President-elect Trump has made it clear that he wants the American people to derive maximum benefit from every relationship the U.S. has with foreign governments," Bryant said. "The Obama administration's deal with Cuba will have to meet the standard. The rush to aid that country's communist regime is yet another action of concern by President Obama."

Blake Wilson, head of the Mississippi Economic Council, said he felt it was too soon to speculate on the local impact of U.S.-Cuba trade relations.

“It’s a question mark right now,” Wilson said. “There hasn’t been enough time to know what impact the change in relationship has had, it hasn’t had time to be realized. It’s still horizontal, and we’re just going to have to see.”

RELATED: Mississippi businesses eye opportunities in Cuba

Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, now a Jackson-based attorney, disagrees. Espy, who has visited Cuba nine times and serves on the U.S. Agriculture Commission for Cuba, said economic opportunity is ripe in Cuba.

“I think the U.S. would be foolhardy to turn its eye, turn its head away from what could be a very promising new market in Cuba,” he said. “They yearn for food and they yearn for freedom. If the U.S. shuts the gate again after just opening it after 50 years, I think that would be an unwise move.”

In 2015, Espy was one of 92 people who visited the island nation with the U.S. Agriculture Commission for Cuba. During their time there, Espy said they toured former sugar factories as well as tobacco farms.

Espy returned to Cuba this past June with 27 agricultural specialists from across the United States and sat down with Cuban government officials and laid out a comprehensive plan on how both economies could financially benefit from trade.

“This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff,” he said. “These are specific, material, operational ideas that we discussed putting into force immediately.”

Agriculture isn’t the only business venture Mississippians are eyeing in Cuba.

John Ditto, president of StateStreet Group, attended MDA’s Cuba Summit last month. Ditto and his wife also recently visited Cuba. The two were taken by the architecture and the history of buildings in Cuba.

“From a real estate perspective, I think it’s fascinating,” Ditto said. “The buildings there in Havana are beautiful. It’s like the French Quarter times 1,000.”

Ditto said he’s optimistic about business relations with Cuba but said he felt many of the Cuban people were still healing from Fidel Castro’s regime.

“I do think there is a real future, but it is complicated,” he said. “If you spend a day or two in South Florida...it’s very personal, and emotions are still very raw.”

James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, said, from his personal experience, the Cuban people are hungry for a relationship with the United States.

Williams, who is based in Washington, D.C., said he has not only fallen in love with Cuba, but her people as well. By bringing trade to Cuba, Williams said he feels the landscape of Cuba could change for the better.

“We know it’s going to change,” he said. “We’re now at a question of when, not if. You have so few chances in your life to do something good. It just grabs your heart.”

Williams said he has seen a large bipartisan effort on relations with Cuba and feels both sides are looking forward to ending the embargo.

He noted “deep red states like Mississippi” that voted for Trump did so with the expectation that he would reduce government overregulation.

“Ending the embargo is certainly a great place to start and something they would highly support,” Williams said.

SEE ALSO: Mississippi Gulf Coast could cash in on trade with Cuba

Opening up relations with Cuba would not only lead to business opportunities but academic opportunities as well, Espy said.

Faculty from Alcorn State University also joined Espy on the June trip with the hopes of establishing a relationship between the Mississippi university and the Agricultural University of Havana.

“I was very impressed with the outcome of that meeting,” Espy said. “Mississippi has great expectations of what could happen with normalized trade in Cuba.”

Hayes Dent, of Yazoo City and an Engage Cuba board member, said he feels Mississippi farmers, specifically rice farmers, could largely benefit from free trade with Cuba.

Dent noted that Vietnam is the current rice supplier to Cuba. Vietnam is located almost 10,000 miles from Cuba. The Mississippi Gulf Coast is just 650 miles from Havana.

“What is wrong with this picture?” Dent said. “If you want to be consistent and you want to help grow the Mississippi economy, then who in the world wouldn’t be for this?”

Regarding Trump’s tweet, Dent said he feels dialogue and engagement are the best way to break down barriers.

“If you want to look at the Cuban trade embargo for all these years, Fidel Castro died an old man of 90 years old. It certainly had no impact on him and his brother Raul’s control of this county,” he said. “Trump seems interested in tangible results. The best way to do that is to engage people, that’s what gets tangible results. Trade opens those kinds of doors. Do that through trade, travel and cultural exchanges.”

Not everyone on the Engage Cuba board is convinced, however. Board member John Winstead, who works with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, said he’s curious to see how the nuts and bolts of a trade agreement would work.

“There are some opportunities in Cuba but I’m not for supporting another country,” Winstead said. “They would like to have our products but nobody has come up with a way they’re going to pay. Who’s going to pay for the goods and services they’re going to get from us?”

On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the option is opening for exporting to Cuba, according to Kimberly Anguillard, media and marketing manager at the Port of Gulfport.

“At this time, we do not have a trade route between the Port of Gulfport and Cuba but we are discussing possibilities within one of our current tenants to export goods from Mississippi,” Anguillard said. “We would hope that the port could play a major role in any trade ties with Cuba in the future, allowing us to promote change in the country while also helping Mississippi farmers and businesses.”

Dent said he’s confident trade is imminent between the U.S. and Cuba.

“This is going to happen,” he said. “It may be delayed again under a Trump presidency or maybe it won't be, but this is something that’s’ inevitably going to happen because it’s the right thing for America to do this.”