More than a half-century ago, ferry-boats regularly brought tourists from New Orleans to Cuba, separated by only 700 miles.
Now, with commercial air service expected to resume to the isolated island nation amid normalizing U.S. relations, Louisiana could reap some benefit from ramping up business with its onetime leading trade partner. That’s according to a range of state leaders and experts in Cuba’s aging infrastructure, culture and struggling economy, who spoke at a business summit Wednesday at Gallier Hall.
“As we work together, it’s a two-way street,” said Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Mike Strain. “We have to work to rebuild the relationships, and the greatest way to rebuild the relationships is with trade.”
Potential reforms could help boost U.S. agricultural exports, including chicken, rice and soybeans, he said. That could be big news for companies like New Orleans Cold Storage, one of the largest suppliers of beef, poultry and pork exports in the country.
“If you think about the potential, it’s incredible,” Strain said, “and it’s amazing how fast things are moving.”
Cuba was Louisiana’s top trading partner before Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.
Now, they remain trading partners in goods limited to agricultural and humanitarian provisions.
“It’s in a unique position of becoming a major trade partner with the United States,” said Teo Babun, CEO of BH Consultants, which provides strategic services related to Cuba.
The summit was hosted by the Louisiana Alliance for Cuba, a statewide business group that promotes trade between Louisiana businesses and Cuba.
Nearly two centuries after foreign investment began trickling in, Cuba’s government is appealing for billions of dollars to update specific development sectors, including agriculture, industrial, tourism, energy and transportation.
Investing in Cuba has advantages, according to Eduardo Bencomo Zurdos, a former president of the International Finance Bank of Cuba and former president of CIMEX Corp., the largest Cuban corporate conglomerate. Those include “wide possibilities in virtually all productive sectors,” as well as a “privileged geographical location” and burgeoning tourism destination and a rich, well-known culture.
But it’s going to be costly. “The infrastructure exists, but it needs a lot of work, and it needs to be perfected for the purposes of what we’re doing,” Babun said.
Cuba has 10 international airports; 38,000 miles of roads; 9,300 miles of railroad; and 1,000 miles of expressway. For foreign investors, potential opportunities may include expanding airport facilities and terminals, upgrading communications and improving rail access to and from Cuba’s ports.
But if the trade embargo is lifted, it’s going to be “slow-going” initially for U.S. companies to gain market share, said Jamie Warshaw, CEO of Farmers Rice Milling Co., which operates the largest rice mill in Louisiana.
“When you lose a market, if you’re in the business of selling, not only do you lose the customer but you lose the momentum,” he said.
RICHARD THOMPSON, The Advocate
June 22, 2016