Tennessee and Cuba: Partnership with untapped potential

The Tennessean

By: James Williams

President Obama this week will become the first sitting U.S. President to step foot on Cuban soil since 1928. In Tennessee, there is wide-spread support for this level of engagement.  A recent Atlantic Council poll found that 71 percent of Tennesseans across party lines support the restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba.

The Cuban people overwhelmingly support this as well, as 97 percent favor ending the embargo.

Despite this broad support in Tennessee and across the country, one group is still not listening: Congress in Washington, D.C.

We don’t need another big government policy that restricts Tennessee farmers and businesses from doing what they do best:  selling their products, creating jobs and supporting their families and communities. That is important because only Congress has the authority to end the embargo.  But a call to action to Congress is not enough.  Tennessee has the opportunity to lead on this issue, to mobilize the grassroots support from business and community leaders and show members of Congress the widespread support for ending the embargo.

That is why last year we launched the Tennessee State Council to bring together local leaders and articulate how trade with Cuba would benefit Tennessee. Over the next year, the Engage Cuba Tennessee State Council will continue to educate our community and work with the congressional delegation to call for an end to the embargo.

Beyond the need to engage with a country 90 miles from Florida, Cuba presents lucrative trade opportunities for Tennessee businesses — particularly in the agricultural sector. Cuba imports 80 percent of its food and Tennessee’s top agricultural exports include wheat, soybean meal, and corn.

These products are in high demand in Cuba, but the embargo makes exporting Tennessee products to the Island nearly impossible. Instead, international competitors like Brazil, Argentina and Europe have been able to secure this market share in the Cuban agricultural market that could easily be replaced by Tennessee exports at a reduced cost.

f members of Congress have questions about Cuba, they should visit and ask them. They should ask the tough questions on what changes the Cuban government has made — and there have been many. From expanded travel opportunities to increased Cuban entrepreneurship, today’s Cuba is far different from the dated Cold War perceptions some still remember.

But there is still work to be done. Make no mistake, progress has been made.

Just this month, an agreement was reached to allow increased travel for Americans to Cuba and to expand opportunities for U.S. financial firms on the Island. This is exactly the type of change the U.S.-Cuba relationship needs.

For those that argue we must keep the embargo in place for the Cuban people, we would point them to the words of Carlos Gutierrez, President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Commerce, “Some of my fellow Cuban-Americans insist that continuing to squeeze Cuba economically will help the Cuban people…I wonder if the Cubans who have to stand in line for the most basic necessities for hours in the hot Havana sun feel that this approach is helpful to them.”