New Ohio council seeks to end Cuba embargo

The Columbus Dispatch

By: Mark Williams

Business leaders in Ohio have been enlisted in the fight to end the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

Engage Cuba, a year-old Washington-based coalition of companies and organizations working to end the embargo, created the Ohio State Council in February in Cleveland. Ohio businesses stand to benefit from lifting the 55-year-old embargo, the coalition says.

The Ohio council is one of four state councils that Engage Cuba has created so far with similar groups planned for other states.

The council consists of leaders in Ohio agriculture, manufacturing and business who say trade between Ohio and Cuba will help businesses in this state and will benefit the island nation.

“Ohio's diversified economy will find the possibility of a lot of opportunities in Cuba,” said Luis Alcalde. He's a Cuban-American, a Columbus attorney and a member of the Ohio State Council.

Engage Cuba got off the ground after President Barack Obama announced in December 2014 that he would use his executive powers to move toward more normal relations with Cuba. But the embargo, enacted after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, largely remains in place and the executive actions taken by Obama could be undone by the next president.

Only Congress can lift the embargo and allow normal travel and full trade between the U.S. and the island that is 90 miles from Florida. Cuba is about the same size as Pennsylvania and has 11.2 million people, about the same as Ohio.

Engage Cuba is backing legislation that has been introduced in Congress to dismantle parts or all of the embargo and lift sanctions against Cuba. It has been doing that by mobilizing support from different groups around the country.

“Trade is a two-way street,” Alcalde said. “There are clearly a lot of things we could send over to Cuba and sell to Cuba. At the same time, there is the potential for Cuba to trade things besides the things normally associated with Cuba, like rum, cigars, nickel.”

Some Ohio agricultural products likely have been exported to Cuba over the years, given that the embargo has an exception for food and medicine.

But food exports to Cuba have been dropping, because Cuba must pay cash and credit is not allowed. As a result, Cuba has turned to South America and Europe for more of its food imports.

The Ohio council includes Cincinnati-based consumer products company Procter & Gamble and the Ohio Farm Bureau and civic leaders including Michael Drake, president of Ohio State University.

“We have been advocating for opening the Cuba market for decades,” said Joe Cornely, spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau.

Cornely said the group recognizes that allowing trade between the two countries also would mean the U.S. buying products from Cuba.

“In agriculture, we tend to be free-trade oriented. One of the things we have a competitive advantage in the United States is food production,” he said. “When you consider 95 out of 100 potential customers are located outside of the United States, any time we can find new markets for our products we think is a positive development.”

A survey conducted by Engage Cuba found that 78 percent of Ohioans support lifting the embargo.

“There is small contingent making the same argument for the past 55 years,” said Lee Ann Evans, Engage Cuba's senior policy adviser. “We think it's time to do something differently.”