Trump’s policies on Cuba a setback for Louisiana, but not all hope is lost

For years, Louisiana officials and business leaders have sought to capture a large share of the U.S. trade market with Cuba, but those hoping the long-standing trade embargo against the Caribbean island would be lifted have been dealt a setback.

President Donald Trump on Friday issued a stinging indictment of the Cuban government and rescinded parts of former President Barack Obama’s policies to ease U.S. travel and trade restrictions with the island nation. Trump called for greater enforcement of current laws, a crackdown on business dealings with state-run firms and prohibitions on certain individual tourism.

“I’ve been working on this for nine years,” says Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain, a Republican. “Let’s have these discussions. Lets figure out how we move forward—rather than not talking about whatever elephants may be in the room.”

Louisiana leaders expected to grab most of the U.S. trade market with Cuba if restrictions were lifted—an expected $500 million to $600 million for Louisiana over the first five years, much of that in agriculture products like rice, soybeans and poultry. After Obama eased rules in 2015, a host of Louisiana leaders—including Edwards—rushed to Havana to develop relationships with officials there.

Still, the impact of Trump’s new policy depends largely on how his administration draws it up.

“The rules haven’t been promulgated, so we’ll see,” says Michael Olivier, CEO of the Committee of 100 for Economic Development. “I don’t expect it’s going to impact the ability to sell. It’s going to be mostly the visitation issue.”

While Trump’s order is another barrier to normalized trade with Cuba, it stops short of pulling back Obama’s entire policy. Embassies will be left open and certain travel still will be allowed.

For business dealings, Trump’s order aims mostly to prevent U.S. trade activity with the military conglomerate, which controls the majority of the Cuban economy, according to Saul Newsome, an associate with Breazeale, Sachse & Wilson. Certain types of business still will be permitted.

“I don’t think this is the nail in the coffin for future business,” says Newsome, who specializes in international trade law, specifically with Latin America. “Louisiana has tried to reach out its arm … I don’t think all that goodwill is lost. President Trump could have taken more a drastic measure.”

States are already allowed to do limited business with Cuba if the deals are cash in advance, meaning U.S. companies cannot provide Cubans financing. Strain says Louisiana has done more business with Cuba over the past 10 years—more than $1.4 billion—than any other state.

Cuba could continue doing those deals with the U.S., and Cuba President Raul Castro is set to step down from power in 2018. The leadership that comes after him could usher in warmer relations between Cuba and the U.S.

Louisiana’s position on Cuba represents a unique split among U.S. conservatives. Hardliners focused on human rights abuses by the Castro regime are at odds with those in states like Louisiana who want to open the door for lucrative business dealings—a policy they say would usher Cuba into the 21st century.

“I believe that in the long-term Cuba will develop a Democratic society,” says Joe Accardo, former director of the Ports Association of Louisiana. “The more tourism and business that develops in Cuba and the more contacts they have with the outside world, the more quickly that will happen.”

—Sam Karlin

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