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Mississippi mulls trade with Cuba in Trump presidency

Mississippi mulls trade with Cuba in Trump presidency
Sarah Fowler , The Clarion-Ledger 5:04 p.m. CST December 4, 2016

In the months since President Obama signed an executive order lifting
trade restrictions with Cuba, Mississippi has jumped at the chance to
benefit economically.

Last week, president-elect Donald Trump set off a firestorm of
speculation after he tweeted he may reverse Obama’s executive order and
end trade with Cuba.

“If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the
Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate the
deal,” the tweet read.

Last month, the Mississippi Development Authority hosted an economic
summit offering insights on business relations with Cuba.

In February, MDA is taking Mississippians on a business development
mission to Cuba to help “establish those export relationships,”
spokesperson Jeff Rent previously told The Clarion-Ledger.

Rent said MDA hasn’t changed plans for the trade mission to Cuba but
would not comment further.

Gov. Phil Bryant, who has a close relationship with Trump, said he felt
Trump would act within the best interest of Americans. The governor also
called into question the deal Obama made with Cuba.

“I believe President-elect Trump has made it clear that he wants the
American people to derive maximum benefit from every relationship the
U.S. has with foreign governments,” Bryant said. “The Obama
administration’s deal with Cuba will have to meet the standard. The rush
to aid that country’s communist regime is yet another action of concern
by President Obama.”

Blake Wilson, head of the Mississippi Economic Council, said he felt it
was too soon to speculate on the local impact of U.S.-Cuba trade relations.

“It’s a question mark right now,” Wilson said. “There hasn’t been enough
time to know what impact the change in relationship has had, it hasn’t
had time to be realized. It’s still horizontal, and we’re just going to
have to see.”

RELATED: Mississippi businesses eye opportunities in Cuba

Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, now a Jackson-based
attorney, disagrees. Espy, who has visited Cuba nine times and serves on
the U.S. Agriculture Commission for Cuba, said economic opportunity is
ripe in Cuba.

“I think the U.S. would be foolhardy to turn its eye, turn its head away
from what could be a very promising new market in Cuba,” he said. “They
yearn for food and they yearn for freedom. If the U.S. shuts the gate
again after just opening it after 50 years, I think that would be an
unwise move.”

In 2015, Espy was one of 92 people who visited the island nation with
the U.S. Agriculture Commission for Cuba. During their time there, Espy
said they toured former sugar factories as well as tobacco farms.

Espy returned to Cuba this past June with 27 agricultural specialists
from across the United States and sat down with Cuban government
officials and laid out a comprehensive plan on how both economies could
financially benefit from trade.

“This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff,” he said. “These are specific,
material, operational ideas that we discussed putting into force
immediately.”

Agriculture isn’t the only business venture Mississippians are eyeing in
Cuba.

John Ditto, president of StateStreet Group, attended MDA’s Cuba Summit
last month. Ditto and his wife also recently visited Cuba. The two were
taken by the architecture and the history of buildings in Cuba.

“From a real estate perspective, I think it’s fascinating,” Ditto said.
“The buildings there in Havana are beautiful. It’s like the French
Quarter times 1,000.”

Ditto said he’s optimistic about business relations with Cuba but said
he felt many of the Cuban people were still healing from Fidel Castro’s
regime.

“I do think there is a real future, but it is complicated,” he said.
“It’s very personal, and emotions are still very raw.”

James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, said, from his personal
experience, the Cuban people are hungry for a relationship with the
United States.

Williams, who is based in Washington, D.C., said he has not only fallen
in love with Cuba, but her people as well. By bringing trade to Cuba,
Williams said he feels the landscape of Cuba could change for the better.

“We know it’s going to change,” he said. “We’re now at a question of
when, not if. You have so few chances in your life to do something good.
It just grabs your heart.”

Williams said he has seen a large bipartisan effort on relations with
Cuba and feels both sides are looking forward to ending the embargo.

He noted “deep red states like Mississippi” that voted for Trump did so
with the expectation that he would reduce government overregulation.

“Ending the embargo is certainly a great place to start and something
they would highly support,” Williams said.

SEE ALSO: Mississippi Gulf Coast could cash in on trade with Cuba

Opening up relations with Cuba would not only lead to business
opportunities but academic opportunities as well, Espy said.

Faculty from Alcorn State University also joined Espy on the June trip
with the hopes of establishing a relationship between the Mississippi
university and the Agricultural University of Havana.

“I was very impressed with the outcome of that meeting,” Espy said.
“Mississippi has great expectations of what could happen with normalized
trade in Cuba.”

Hayes Dent, of Yazoo City and an Engage Cuba board member, said he feels
Mississippi farmers, specifically rice farmers, could largely benefit
from free trade with Cuba.

Dent noted that Vietnam is the current rice supplier to Cuba. Vietnam is
located almost 10,000 miles from Cuba. The Mississippi Gulf Coast is
just 650 miles from Havana.

“What is wrong with this picture?” Dent said. “If you want to be
consistent and you want to help grow the Mississippi economy, then who
in the world wouldn’t be for this?”

Regarding Trump’s tweet, Dent said he feels dialogue and engagement are
the best way to break down barriers.

“If you want to look at the Cuban trade embargo for all these years,
Fidel Castro died an old man of 90 years old. It certainly had no impact
on him and his brother Raul’s control of this county,” he said. “Trump
seems interested in tangible results. The best way to do that is to
engage people, that’s what gets tangible results. Trade opens those
kinds of doors. Do that through trade, travel and cultural exchanges.”

Not everyone on the Engage Cuba board is convinced, however. Board
member John Winstead, who works with the Mississippi Department of
Agriculture and Commerce, said he’s curious to see how the nuts and
bolts of a trade agreement would work.

“There are some opportunities in Cuba but I’m not for supporting another
country,” Winstead said. “They would like to have our products but
nobody has come up with a way they’re going to pay. Who’s going to pay
for the goods and services they’re going to get from us?”

On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the option is opening for exporting to
Cuba, according to Kimberly Anguillard, media and marketing manager at
the Port of Gulfport.

“At this time, we do not have a trade route between the Port of Gulfport
and Cuba but we are discussing possibilities within one of our current
tenants to export goods from Mississippi,” Anguillard said. “We would
hope that the port could play a major role in any trade ties with Cuba
in the future, allowing us to promote change in the country while also
helping Mississippi farmers and businesses.”

Dent said he’s confident trade is imminent between the U.S. and Cuba.

“This is going to happen,” he said. “It may be delayed again under a
Trump presidency or maybe it won’t be, but this is something that’s’
inevitably going to happen because it’s the right thing for America to
do this.”

Contact Sarah Fowler at sfowler@gannett.com or 601-961-7303.

Source: Mississippi mulls trade with Cuba in Trump presidency –
www.clarionledger.com/story/business/2016/12/04/mississippi-mulls-trade-cuba-trump-presidency/94603498/

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