When the news of the biggest political thaw in more than half a century between the U.S. and Cuba finally came, Cynthia Thomas discovered an unusual longing.
“I needed a rum and Coke, and I was happy I had nothing to do at noon that day,” she said with a laugh. “No tears, just overjoyed, just numb and shocked. So much that I needed a drink.”
For more than 14 years, Thomas faced an uphill battle in helping lay the foundation for Texas companies to do business in Cuba. President Barack Obama’s Dec. 17 executive order to normalize relations with Cuba and “cut loose the shackles of the past” ends one of the last vestiges of the Cold War and provides Texans with a new opportunity.
While normalization won’t be complete until Congress ends its economic embargo, Thomas and others believe the move is a milestone for the United States, particularly Texas. Over the years, Texas leaders have touted possible deals for beans, cotton, rice, grain, packaged desserts, organic soaps, livestock, even airlines and ports. Success has come slowly, with overall sales of Texas agriculture products topping $89 million in 2009 before falling. Some agricultural products are exempt from the embargo.
But the fact that Texas doesn’t carry the political baggage of the swing state of Florida bodes well for the Lone Star State. Florida is home to much of the Cuban diaspora, which for years remained steadfast in its opposition to any opening with Cuba. Cubans have been critical in presidential politics, although the demographic changes underway — the aging of Cubans — makes way for more moderate Cuban-Americans, many of them new arrivals, and a new political mindset.
“Cuba is not the polarizing issue in Texas as it is in Florida, and that gives us an edge,” Thomas said. “Texas is one of the best-prepared states to re-enter trade with Cuba. We have a well-educated business community, Texans who have been down to Cuba and talked deals. We have been at the forefront, and I think that sets us up to move forward in the near future.”
Trade mission plans
Next spring, Thomas plans to return to Cuba for the first time since 2012 with a group of Texas investors. She believes this trade mission will be different because of a new business climate based less on the uncertainties of politics and more on long-term business opportunities.
Since 2000, Texas has been key in re-establishing ties with the island. In May 2001, Texas state lawmakers were the first to ask President George W. Bush to lift the embargo. State leaders in business and agriculture lined up behind the cause, which spread to other states. In 2008, Thomas, president of TriDimension Strategies LLC, a consulting firm, took a group led by Todd Staples, state agriculture commissioner at the time.
Among those traveling was Frank Walker of McKinney, founder and president of Walker Ltd., a company that represents food manufacturers. Sure, he wants to do business in Cuba, see his company find markets and grow.
But Walker has more personal reasons. As a young Marine, he witnessed how the U.S. government cemented its broad trade embargo against Cuba in 1962, followed by the Cuban missile crisis, when the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba brought the nations to the brink of war. And he saw that even as the U.S. built relations with communist nations like China and Vietnam, Cuba remained one of just a few nations, along with Iran and North Korea, with no formal ties with Washington.
“I always wondered how that made sense, [to] isolate a people just 90 miles off our shores,” he said. “The politics of the country is communist, but Cuban citizens are the biggest capitalists I have ever seen. You get more flies with honey than with vinegar, and the embargo has been nothing but vinegar. We have a long history with Cuba, and we need to take advantage of that.”
Texas and Cuba — the Western Hemisphere’s last communist nation — may seem like an odd match, but they share intriguing bits of history. Both have had revolutions. Both have a passion for gritty cowboys, fine cattle and baseball. And both have unwavering pride in their independent spirit, underscored by their flags, each emblazoned with a single star.
On Fidel Castro’s first and only trip to the United States in 1959, he stopped in Houston, met with a Texas cattlemen’s group and donned a cowboy hat for the cameras.
Texas lore fascinates Cubans. Visiting Texans are sometimes called “John Waynes.” And near Cuba’s heartland town of Camaguey, where Texas’ King Ranch once owned thousands of acres and raised the most prized cattle herd around, locals readily embrace norteño music, known in Texas as Tex-Mex. The properties were expropriated by the Cuban Revolution and are now known as Rancho King, said to be one of Fidel Castro’s favorite places for quiet reflection.
Obama’s announcement expands travel opportunities, increases remittance levels, expands commercial exports, and allows visiting U.S. citizens to bring back coveted Cuban goods, such as rum and cigars, from the island. For Thomas, perhaps the biggest breakthrough means that U.S. credit and debit cards will now be permitted in Cuba, ending decades when Americans carried wads of cash, often times limiting their spending.
But Cuba will require patience for investors and tourists. Change won’t come overnight. Sure, the island is packed with well-educated residents hungry for technology, new fashion styles, restaurants, etc. Yet much of the population of more than 11 million people is mired in poverty. With a per capita gross domestic product of about $3,900, most Cubans cannot afford pricey foreign products.
“Problem is they don’t have any money,” said Pete Bonds, a rancher from Fort Worth who is second vice president of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. On his first and only visit to Cuba, he came away with mixed feelings. “They’re broke. … My crystal ball is cloudy. I don’t see any real opportunity for another five, maybe 10 years,” he said.
The key, he added, will be the development of the Cuban tourism industry, which boasts of its stunning beaches.
In Plano, Thomas’ phone hasn’t stop ringing. Requests on LinkedIn, a business-oriented social networking service, keep piling up. She’s looking forward to 2015 and sees the Dallas area becoming an even bigger airport hub for Latin America with connecting flights to Havana. Thomas’ master’s thesis was about outdated laws, and when she visited Cuba she was convinced the embargo was “a poster child for a failed policy.”
“For many years people would look at me and ask, ‘Why Cuba?’” she said. “I think people are now asking, ‘Why not Cuba?’”
By Alfredo Corchado, The Dallas Morning News
December 31, 2014