Ohio and Cuba, open for business

Crain's Cleveland Business

By: James Williams

Positioned at the intersection of manufacturing, agriculture and other sectors, Ohio’s economy is a model for the rest of the United States. Ohio produces a variety of exports with a broad appeal in the global market.

But there is one country that is beyond Ohio’s reach: Cuba. A trade embargo with the island has prevented Ohio’s companies from gaining a foothold in a new market while their international competitors enjoy unfettered access.

That is why President Obama’s announcement that he will visit Cuba in March came as a welcome development. For years, the United States and Cuba isolated themselves from one another. This visit, and the potential for reengagement with Cuba, could reconnect the two countries.

While a small minority may oppose President Obama’s trip, they fail to provide any solutions to improve the situation except continuing the status quo. History has shown that won’t work. Indeed, it is the Cuban people who have suffered under the embargo. Ohioans value common sense and understand that if you tried something one way for 55 years and it hasn’t worked, you better try something new.

Strong bipartisan support, as well as recognizing the embargo has failed to yield results, is why we launched Engage Cuba. When nearly every issue in Washington has been politicized, support for engagement with Cuba transcends party labels with 78% of Ohioans in favor of restoring diplomatic ties with the island. The Cuban people overwhelmingly support this as well, with 97% in favor of an end to the embargo.

Our organization brings together private companies, local community leaders and members of Congress who believe the embargo represents a failed and outdated policy. Despite the trade embargo, administration officials such as Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker have visited Cuba to find business opportunities that will benefit the U.S. economy and the Cuban people. These negotiations will no doubt be helpful for Northeast Ohio businesses also looking to expand into a new market.

Last week, Engage Cuba launched the Ohio State Council to detail how local businesses could benefit from trade with Cuba. We’ve already launched state councils in Tennessee and Louisiana, and have many other states such as Texas and Georgia on the horizon. Collectively, the Engage Cuba State Councils will mobilize grassroots support and highlight the economic benefits that can come from trade with Cuba.

It is clear to see how the burdensome trade embargo and travel restrictions impact Ohio’s diverse economy. Cuba’s limited infrastructure presents a great opportunity for Ohio’s steel industry that provides 100,000 jobs across the state. Ohio car manufacturers, which currently export $4.5 billion a year in passenger cars and $3.5 billion in parts, could eventually help replace Cuba’s aging vehicles. In opening Cuba for trade, Northeast Ohio businesses could reach 11 million new customers.

Though lifting the embargo represents the biggest hurdle facing U.S. and Cuban officials, there has been progress. Recently, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx visited Cuba to sign an agreement to begin direct flights for the first time in a half-century. Soon, Ohioans will be able to visit Cuba and soak in the island’s rich and vibrant culture. And in October, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan led a delegation of local business and community leaders to Cuba to explore economic opportunities for Northeast Ohio businesses.

President Obama’s trip to Cuba comes after years of work to normalize relations with Cuba. But we should recognize there is more work to do. Ending the embargo, increasing commerce opportunities with Cuba and ensuring the island continues to open up its economy, will lead to a more prosperous and mutually beneficial relationship, especially for Ohio businesses and the Cuban people.

Northeast Ohio businesses must send a clear message to their leaders in Washington that they want to do business with Cuba. Doing so will ensure Ohio leads the way in ushering in a new era of constructive relations that benefits local business and the Cuban people.