Louisiana leaders sound off on reviving Cuban trade

Louisiana leaders sound off on reviving Cuban trade

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - As a new chapter starts in the relationship between the US and Cuba, Louisiana leaders are hoping to be first in line to trade with the country.

A delegation led by Congressman Ralph Abraham, R-LA (5th District), will visit Cuba next week.

Just over 670 miles of open water separate the Port of New Orleans and Havana, Cuba. With political barriers beginning to fall, Louisiana is already looking to close the distance with trading.

"We are their closest trading partners," said Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture Mike Strain. "You take the Port of South Louisiana, the Port of Lake Charles and we're perfectly positioned to take advantage of that."

The Bayou State and the island nation have a long history. Up until the US embargo in the 1960s, Cuba was one of the biggest consumers of Louisiana rice. Dr. Mike Salassi with the LSU AgCenter and its department of agricultural economics said reopening the trade would be a big boost for Louisiana farmers.

"Last year's price, our crop for 2015 was valued at $345 million," Salassi said. "So, an additional market like Cuba, as an additional buyer in the market, it helps prop the price up so it would be pretty substantial for us."

It's not just the state's agriculture that could benefit from reviving the Cuban trade. Strain added around 60 percent of all of America's exports come through the Port of New Orleans. So chances are if and when exports head to Cuba, they'll stop first in Louisiana and bring more business to its major ports.

"Every ship leaves a million dollars at the port. Every ship takes $18 to $35 million worth of cargo somewhere. That's all bought right here," Strain explained.

However, even with the excitement of a new trade partner and extra dollars in the state's economy, other leaders are worried Cuba may be getting a free pass on its controversial past policies.

"We need to make sure that any benefits or any changes to our US policy towards Cuba that it goes along with reforms in Cuba, meaning things like empowering people, human rights improvement, returning property back to the rightful owner and things along those lines," said Congressman Garret Graves, R-LA (6th District).

Meanwhile, Graves' counterpart from Monroe, Abraham, is leading a delegation of agriculture representatives to Cuba to discuss trade options.

The group leaves April 6.

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