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World Trade Center Arkansas leads avant-garde push into Cuban market

The leaders of the Arkansas delegation stand with U.S. Ambassador to Cuba Jeffrey DeLaurentis in the gardens of the Ambassadorial Residence. From left to right, DeLaurentis, Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark, Dan Hendrix, President and CEO of the World Trade Center Arkansas and Melvin Torres, Director of Latin American Trade.

The World Trade Center Arkansas, state and federal leaders are at the helm of efforts to open agricultural trade with Cuba since diplomatic relations were officially reestablished in July 2015. Governor Asa Hutchinson, Senator John Boozman, R-Ark. and Representative Rick Crawford, R-Ark. and the World Trade Center Arkansas have been actively promoting Arkansas’ agriculture industry in the Cuban market and promoting the ease of restrictions for doing business with Cuba in the U.S.

In September 2015, the World Trade Center Arkansas organized the Governor’s trip to Cuba making him the first U.S. governor to visit the island since diplomatic ties were restored. The World Trade Center Arkansas led another visit by an Arkansas delegation this June and in November.

“It’s an opportunity for Arkansas to open up the market in Cuba,” the Governor said.

In November of this year, Torres attended the annual Cuban International Fair as Arkansas’ representative where companies from around the world exhibited at the ExpoCuba center in Havana. Torres brought samples of Arkansas’ coveted long-grain rice and he continued the dialogue established between the Governor and the Cuban government.

“Right now, when we talk about doing business with Cuba, we are talking about doing business with the Cuban government,” Torres says. “And we have an excellent relationship with the Cuban government. We both have products the other wants, and we want to do business immediately. But we can’t because of the embargo.”

In addition to organizing the governor’s 2015 trip and the trip to the International Fair, the World Trade Cent er Arkansas arranged a visit by Cuban embassy officials to Little Rock and has led other trade missions onto the island. The World Trade Center Havana also signed an Agreement of Cooperation with the World Trade Center Arkansas to aid each others efforts in spurring trade between Cuban and Arkansas.

“We also encourage educational exchanges, including professor and student exchanges in addition to commercial match-making,” Torres added. “It’s far from one-sided. There are many things where Cuba can supply the expertise – they have a lot of research and development on farming organically – and they have great products that would be very appealing to the U.S. market.”

Mike Preston, the executive director for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission wrote in a piece for Talk Business and Politics that thanks to Gov. Hutchinson, “Arkansas is taking the bull by the horns and is leading trade initiatives in Cuba.”

In an interview with CubaTrade Magazine, Preston said the state once had a historical trade relationship with Cuba. “We can bring that back. Arkansas is one of the leading states in the country for agriculture production, number one for rice, and number two for poultry. Cuba just makes a lot of sense.”

Within one month of the Governor’s visit, Cuba purchased 4,500 tons of Arkansas poultry from Simmons Foods and Tyson. In addition to poultry, Cuba also imports around 1 billion pounds of rice. Arkansas produces about 10 billion pounds. Rice is a staple in the Cuban diet which makes Arkansas an ideal trading partner.

Furthermore according to Dr. Eric Wailes, the distinguished professor and L.C. Carter endowed chair for the University of Arkansas, and one of the University’s top rice scientists, Cubans prefer Arkansas rice to the currently imported Vietnamese rice, which experiences a deterioration in quality after spending months on a container ship, often months after milling.

Ambassador DeLaurentis (standing left) and Rep. Rick Crawford (standing right) speak to each other during a meeting at the ambassador’s residence.

In the House of Representatives, the bill HR. 3687 and its Senate counterpart, S. 1049 were both co-sponsored by Rep. Crawford and Sen. Boozman. These bills aim to allow people subject to U.S. jurisdiction to finance the sale of agricultural commodities in Cuba. This essentially opens a line of credit for Cuban importers of Arkansas agricultural products.

“I’ve been an advocate of this for a long time, working with Arkansas agriculture and seeing the value proposition for our state,” Rep. Crawford said.

As for fully lifting the embargo to allow, Sen. Boozman and Gov. Hutchinson both agree that it will come with its share of challenges.

“If you lifted the embargo today, Cuba would not be ready for it,” Boozman said. “I think it’s going now at a steady pace and we are moving in the right direction.”

Gov. Hutchinson has said that the hope is with more trade, the Cuban regime will be liberalized.

“It has to be acknowledged that the Cuban regime has been oppressive,” he said. “We should not ignore that side of the equation. So the objective is not just to open up trade to benefit ourselves, but the objective is also to create an environment with more freedoms for the Cuban people.”

“We are aggressively continuing our efforts to have a presence there,” he said.  

The mission of Arkansas World Trade Center is to connect Arkansas to the world by providing international trade services to agricultural producers, companies and individuals and by educating students in global commerce. For more information and valuable updates, please follow the Center on Facebook and Twitter, or visit the Arkansas World Trade Center Website at www.arwtc.org.