Southern Lawmakers Push For Easement Of Trade Barriers With Cuba

Jun 16, 2017
Originally published on June 16, 2017 6:16 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

As we just heard, President Trump faced a lot of pressure from the GOP southern Florida delegation to tighten restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba. But not all Republicans want stricter relations with Cuba. Some officials in southern agriculture states have pushed to open trade with the country and embrace the Obama-era thaw in relations.

Mike Strain is one of those Republicans. He's actually the agriculture commissioner for the state of Louisiana. It's an elected position. Welcome to the program.

MIKE STRAIN: Thank you.

CORNISH: So talk about why for your state closer ties with Cuba make sense.

STRAIN: Well, when you look at the trade opportunities with Cuba, in 2014, Cuba imported over $6 billion worth of products. Cuba imports 80 percent of their food. And when you look at what's going on, we can have product there, high-quality agricultural products, at a very competitive price in two days. When they buy rice from Vietnam, they're buying a lower-quality product. It takes 30 days to get it there.

CORNISH: How will the president's announced policies today change your relationship with Cuba?

STRAIN: We are being told through our - you know, our different - our conversations with Washington that this will have a minimal impact on the current status of agricultural trade. Now, there are a number of bills going through the Congress in the House and the Senate which would further work to normalize the agricultural sector of trade. And we're going to be watching those very, very intensely because what it means for my state - if you're looking at $2 billion in agricultural trade, we fully expect that Louisiana's share could be over $500 million of that trade. America's trade could be over a billion dollars of that within a five-year period.

CORNISH: So we hear these big numbers, and we have a good picture here of what this could mean for Louisiana. But as we mentioned, you're in an elected position. You're a Republican. What's it like trying to make this case to those in your party - right? - who say that, no, we should not be dealing with Cuba?

STRAIN: But the issue is, we are wanting to sell them food, not give them food, not give them anything but sell them products. And when you talk about - you know, and I talked to my fellow Republicans and others. This year, Cuban-Americans will send to Cuba, to their relatives $1.8 billion in American cash. That $1.8 billion is being used to buy food products from other areas of the world. Well, that $1.8 billion should be used to buy or be available to buy food from America. If not, there will be other foreign countries there. Specifically, China will be there and others. So when you look at that, you know, if you want to take a strict, hard line - and then you'd have a total embargo - you wouldn't be sending any assets there.

CORNISH: At the same time, when it comes to politics and the American policy towards Cuba, it hasn't always been just about economics, right? People have also talked about documented human rights abuses there. What is your reply to that, to people who have concern with doing business with that government?

STRAIN: Well, the thing of it is, if we do business with them, if we can bring them internet, if we can bring them the ability to have cellphones and information - also, if we have Americans that are going there, then that will open up the dialogue and the discussion. I mean we've tried isolation since the 1960s. There as isolated as they can get. They're as poor as they can get. It's time to have a different approach. And by doing that, I think you will see, you know, a shift in their politics.

CORNISH: Mike Strain is the agricultural commissioner for the state of Louisiana. Mr. Strain, thank you so much for speaking with us.

STRAIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.