Missouri, Kansas councils ready to push for trade with Cuba

Screen shot 2016-09-21 at 9.13.57 AMHere’s a reframing, a spin if you will, of epic historic proportions.

Think of the 55-year-old Cuban embargo as hefty over-regulation.

The suggestion — made in a panel discussion Monday — bluntly strips the embargo of its loaded geopolitical legacy and human rights concerns. Otherwise, it’s a descriptively honest way to assess current relations.

It’s not so much a matter of whether the Cuban embargo will be lifted, but when. On this, business leaders on both sides of the state line concur. And they are organizing to press for that eventuality and to be ready for the financial opportunities.

Kansas and Missouri on Monday became the 14th and 15th states to form councils intent on pressing Congress to end the travel and trade bans. Representatives of agriculture associations for wheat, soybeans, sorghum, corn, rice and livestock are involved. Joe Reardon, president and CEO of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, is also a part of the new councils, as is Dan P. Mehan, president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry; Michael Collins, president and CEO of Port Kansas City; and Ivry Karamitros, director of World Trade Center Kansas City.

The rolling out of the councils, in events on each side of the state line, might have been the first time that local business executives watched a slide presentation with the phrasing “implementing changes to achieve a prosperous, efficient and sustainable Cuban socialism.”

Rubén Ramos Arrieta, minister counselor with Cuba’s economic and trade office within its Washington embassy, gave the presentation at the chamber’s Union Station offices.

He stressed a special development zone, tax incentives and other recent changes in Cuban government and policy to attract foreign investment and trade.

In addition, Ramos showed a chart of the 326 projects the Cuban government has defined as priorities for investment. Topping the list are projects in tourism, agriculture and food. But renewable energy, construction, biotech and medicine are also part of the government’s plans.

The U.S. has been gradually hedging toward normalizing relations for years. In March, President Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years. In a speech, he asked Cubans to embrace democracy and their government to tolerate dissent. And in August 2015, the U.S. embassy in Havana reopened.

But there have been other incremental shifts as well, allowing for more legal travel between the countries, more remittances from Cuban-Americans to their families there, and some trade, although exports are often allowed only under convoluted financial limitations, including cash up front.

Cuba imports up to 80 percent of its food, according to Engage Cuba, a D.C. nonprofit advocacy group of private companies and organizations working to lift both the travel and trade embargoes.

In 2014, Cuban agricultural imports totaled almost $2 billion, nearly doubling since 2004, according to the group’s figures. The need will trend upward with expected increased tourism to Cuba. But the U.S. ranks fourth in agriculture exports to Cuba, losing an increasing share to competition from the European Union, Brazil and Argentina.

So the markets are there.

As part of the announcement of the new state councils, three Cuban millers will spend the next few days here. They will visit the Muscotah, Kan., farm of Jay Armstrong, former head of the Kansas Wheat Commission. They also will observe grain inspections, visit a flour mill, talk with USDA officials and see the IGP Institute at Kansas State University.

Capitalism can be a tool to work for humanitarian reforms. It can be a way to impart democratic ideals about open markets, entrepreneuralism and workers’ rights. Or it can become the impetus to turn the other way, pretend abuses don’t exist, all to keep the dollars flowing. It’s a choice.

Going forward into Cuba, this is the weighty question that will be answered in time. Because it’s increasingly clear that there is no going backward.

Mary Sanchez, The Kansas City Star

September 19, 2016

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