President Obama’s stated intentions to normalize relations with Cuba generated excitement among many Louisianans who said our state is well positioned to do profitable business there. Oil and gas reporter Ken Stickney asked former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, D-Lafayette, about her trip to Cuba in 2005, when Louisiana and Cuba initiated trade.
Question: How eager were the Cubans for relations to resume with the United States when you visited in 2005? Did they seem like they would make good trade partners?
Answer: Foreseeing relaxed U.S. trade barriers with Cuba, as governor I made a conscious decision with Michael Olivier, secretary of Economic Development, for our state to be among the first to develop trade agreements beneficial to Louisiana businesses. As an island nation of over 8 million people, the largest in the Antilles, Cuba is heavily dependent on imports for food, medicine and supplies.
In March of 2005 the state structured a $10 million agreement for rice, pepper sauce and other Louisiana goods. During the well-attended signing ceremony I boldly suggested Cuba should increase the deal to $15 million. We were pleasantly surprised when they immediately agreed! Our legal teams rewrote the new terms on site. I would say officials of Alimport, the government’s largest purchasing agency, were definitely comfortable doing business with Louisiana.
Q: Do you think that trip, and the continued exporting we have done to Cuba, will give Louisiana an advantage if normal trade resumes?
A: Personal relationships are key to doing business. Because of our trade mission, Louisiana businesses are not strangers to Cuba and are definitely in advantageous positions to continue and potentially increase the volume of exports.
Q: Has Louisiana state government kept continued contact with the Cubans since the trip, to your knowledge?
A: Based on Gov. Bobby Jindal’s negative criticism of the agreements fostered by Pope Francis and acted upon by Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro, I would be surprised to learn if this administration’s economic development efforts include Cuba. It behooves us all to respect the fact that Pope Francis is concerned with people developing positive human relationships across the world and not with petty politics.
Q: In your opinion, what would be our best bets for exports to Cuba, in addition to rice and poultry? What might they be able to send here?
A:Cuba needs a vast array of goods and services. Over time we should see greater need for shipping services from our ports. Louisiana rice, soybeans, poultry, pepper products and agricultural machinery could find stronger markets. In the future we may provide liquefied natural gas and other energy needs. We can expect cultural exchanges between Louisiana and Cuba, sharing our respective music and culture.
Q: What other observations do you have on the president’s announcement?
A: Many Cuban-Americans suffered serious property and business losses as a result of the nationalization of personal and business properties after the Cuban Revolution. Attempting to normalize relations with Cuba after a 50-year embargo may be the only potential path to eventual restitution of lost assets incurred by those individuals and businesses.