Looking south for trade with Cuba

By JACK WEATHERLY, Mississippi Business Journal

Mississippi is joining the hunt for “gold” in Cuba as the United States appears to be moving toward resumption of trade with the island nation 90 miles off the tip of Florida after a 55-year embargo.

The nation of 11 million in so many ways is frozen in time, typified by 1950s autos that have been recycled time and again.

Thus, it is intriguing to investors and tourists.

A number of states have already sent delegations to Cuba in anticipation of the lifting of the embargo that began after a communist revolution led by Fidel Castro and others took control of the country.

The Mississippi Development Authority’s Oct. 20 seminar on doing business with Cuba will be followed by a trip to that nation in the spring, according to Jeff Rent, spokesman for the MDA.

Thirty-five have signed up for the seminar since it was announced last week, Rent said. the limit is 150, he said.

“The state is being strategic as it looks to work with Mississippi businesses by providing the Cuba seminar first, then facilitating the business mission. We believe preparation is the key to building successful and lasting business relationships,” Rent said in an email.

Participants in the trip will have to pay their airfare and a five-day hotel stay, at an additional  $1,.500. `

Speakers at the summit will include leaders in Cuba’s corporate banking and international trade sectors; infrastructure and energy sectors; and agriculture, commodities and mining sectors.

Cuba imports about 80 percent of its food.

That is an opportunity for an agricultural state such as Mississippi.

Poultry and rice stand to be the biggest commodities for trade in Cuba, according to Brian Williams, a Mississippi State University economist.

According to the MDA, the United States exported poultry valued at $148 million to Cuba in fiscal 2014, making it the eighth-largest U.S. export market for that commodity, and soybean meal shipments totaled $75 million.

Poultry production in the state amounted to $3.2 billion in 2015, by far the largest portion of the $7.5 billion agricultural economy, which accounts for about 30 percent of Mississippi’s work force in direct and indirect jobs.

Calls to Laurel-based Sanderson Farms, the nation’s third-largest poultry producer, were not returned.

Mississippi ranked No. 5 in rice production last year.

Williams said that while he has doubts about how large of an impact trade with Cuba would have on the state, “anytime we can get our foot in a door for just one more export market it’s always a good thing.”

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report stated in 2015 that if financial and travel restrictions were lifted the market could grow significantly.

Currently, the United States has a “cash and carry” relationship with the communist nation, meaning credit would not be extended except for humanitarian purposes.

Between 1960 and 1990 the Soviet Union, which crumbled in 1991, extended $17 billion in credit to Cuba, according to an article in a publication by the Richmond Bank of the Federal Reserve System.

The United States subsequently redoubled its opposition to the Fidel Castro regime because of its human rights violations.

Since then, Cuba’s trade with other nations has grown, and even exports from the United States reached $329 million in 2014, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Cuba had a $4.7 billion trade deficit in 2014, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity.

Legislation introduced last year in Congress, House Resolution 3238, or the Cuba Trade Act of 2015, would lift the embargo and allow financing for trade between the nations.

Congress is divided along party lines to the effort led by President Barack Obama.

Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have voiced support for normalization of relations between the two countries, though the former secretary of state strongly backs it, while Trump has said that it would be a good thing, though a better deal should have been struck.

The MDA’s Rent said in an email that “as much as a third of Cuba’s 5 million workers are now in the private sector . . . . This is an encouraging sign of the opening of Cuban markets.”

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