WASHINGTON – The Cuban trade embargo will almost surely not be lifted this year, but business leaders were urged Wednesday to keep promoting the benefits of selling to and buying from the U.S.’s southern neighbor.
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Republican Rep. Tom Emmer sang a bipartisan chorus of support for lifting the half-century old ban on doing business in Cuba to a group of visiting Minnesota business leaders during a meeting in Klobuchar’s Capitol Hill office.
Klobuchar and Emmer have sponsored bills in their respective chambers to open up commerce between Cuba and the U.S. But both acknowledged the difficulties of overcoming old battles with North America’s major communist regime and fending off new tirades against free trade in America’s 2016 presidential race.
“You have a case you can make as businesses,” Kobuchar told the group, which primarily included representatives of Minnesota’s corn, soybean and livestock industries, but also some from manufacturing and technology.
Emmer warned that “it is not enough to say you’re with us; you need to go person to person.” Hearing from a CEO responsible for local jobs is what it will take to convince the public, the Sixth District congressman said.
Emmer also suggested that business leaders encourage his Minnesota colleagues in the U.S. House to cosponsor his bill. So far, they have not.
Klobuchar and Emmer have traveled to Cuba since President Obama announced plans to try to normalize relations with the island country 90 miles from Florida. They returned convinced that good opportunities exist for American companies in tourism, agriculture, technology and construction.
Many of the businesspeople in Klobuchar’s office Wednesday participated in a White House Business Council meeting later in the day to discuss trade opportunities in Cuba. Most had traveled there since Obama announced his normalization plans.
Ralph Kaehler, a cattle rancher and solar energy entrepreneur from St. Charles, went to Cuba in 2002 with then-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. His most recent trip to Havana hallmarked differences in the regimes of Fidel and Raul Castro.
Cubans wanting to do business are now “holding out for credit, big orders and low prices,” Kaehler said.
Kaehler told the Star Tribune that he saw chances for his renewable energy business as well as his cattle business. “There’s an opening for everything,” he said.
With the notable exception of its nation-leading beet sugar sector, Minnesota’s massive agricultural industry seems four-square behind lifting the embargo as a way to open new markets.
“Soybeans are the second-biggest import in Cuba,” said Paul Simonsen of the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council. There is also a significant untapped Cuban soybean oil market.
Steve Olson, representing that state’s turkey, chicken and egg industry, said his business sector believes growing income among Cubans will lead to better diets and higher demand for Minnesota poultry.
Sam Roy of Mankato-based Solutions Technologies Inc. talked of offering Cubans a way to fortify their drinking water with nutrients.
What remains sticky is the quid pro quo that comes with open markets. As Kaehler noted, it is not a one-way street.
The state’s sugar beet industry fears resurrection of the once-robust Cuban cane sugar industry could drive down sugar prices.
Then, there is the general trashing of free trade emanating from the U.S. presidential campaign. Angry rhetoric has been mostly aimed at the Trans-Pacific Partnership — TPP — that awaits a vote in the U.S. Senate and House. Criticism of TPP by Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton has loosed the cannons on free trade generally, Emmer acknowledged.
Emmer has not yet taken a position on TPP. He sees brighter prospects for lifting the Cuban trade embargo.
“One-off agreements are always easier,” he told the Star Tribune.
But to ensure success, Emmer added, business leaders “better start explaining to employees and people on the street that free trade is a net benefit.”