by Max Brantley
Today, Engage Cuba, a coalition of private businesses and organizations working to end the travel and trade embargo on Cuba, launched its Arkansas State Council at a press conference co-sponsored by USA Rice. The Arkansas State Council is comprised of agribusiness, community, and academic leaders committed to engaging with Cuba through diplomacy and trade.
"Under the leadership of Governor Asa Hutchinson, Senator John Boozman and Representative Rick Crawford, Arkansas is ground zero for our efforts to lift the travel ban and trade embargo," said James Williams, President of Engage Cuba. "Arkansas is the living and breathing example of why we need to change this policy after 55 years of failure. The fact that Cubans are now eating rice from Vietnam instead of Arkansas is an outrage that needs to be changed. Congress needs to stand on the side of its citizens who overwhelmingly want them to lift the travel ban and trade embargo with Cuba. That's why we're launching the Engage Cuba Arkansas State Council. By showcasing the overwhelming support across Arkansas to end this failed policy, we will continue to show Members of Congress that lifting the travel ban and trade embargo will help the state's economy and the Cuban people."
"Agriculture is the number one industry in Arkansas and we produce approximately 50 percent of the U.S. rice crop every year. Arkansas rice is consumed in markets in nearly every corner of the world - except Cuba. That is because the United States continues to prolong an outdated embargo that has done more harm than good," said Dow Brantley, Chairman of USA Rice. "USA Rice is proud to co-launch the Engage Cuba Arkansas State Council to mobilize grassroots support and advocate for a change in policy. Bringing Arkansas rice to Cuba is key to creating local jobs, boosting wages, and securing the long-term future for the state's agriculture industry."
"When it comes to U.S-Cuba relations, we have been running the same play over and over for the past few decades and nothing has changed. If we really want to bring about change, we need to try a new approach," said U.S. Senator John Boozman. "Normalizing relations will allow us to remain competitive and create jobs at home, while pushing for change in Cuba. This council, made up of Arkansans who have been longtime advocates for trade with Cuba, can make a real a difference in the efforts to open the marketplace to Arkansas farmers."
"After 55 years, we have to ask ourselves if the Cuba embargo is performing its intended function, or if instead it is harming the Cuban people and states like Arkansas, which stands to benefit to the tune of a potential $1 billion export market. I traveled to Cuba with several Arkansas producers and my fellow Congressman Ralph Abraham of Louisiana to learn more about Cuban markets and to identify ways that we can maximize the benefits of trade for the Cuban people and Arkansas," said U.S. Representative Rick Crawford. "After touring parts of the country, including Cuban agricultural markets, I believe that lifting the cash and carry requirement for agricultural exports remains the best way forward in normalizing trade relations with the island nation. For our policies to change in this Congress or the next, businesses and lawmakers must continue to build support for these incremental changes which yield positive results for Arkansas and the Cuban people."
Arkansas' top exports, including soybeans, rice and corn, are among the most in-demand products in Cuba. Opening up Cuba for trade would allow Arkansas' agricultural industry and other businesses to reach more than 11 million new customers. Because of the opportunities ahead for Arkansas, the state's legislators continue to be at the forefront of support for increased U.S.-Cuba relations. Governor Asa Hutchinson was the first sitting governor to lead a trade mission to the Island in recent decades. After the trip, Gov. Hutchinson wrote a letter to Congressional leadership underscoring the economic interests of Arkansas for easing restrictions with the Island and supporting legislation by Sen. Boozman and Rep. Crawford that would provide credit extension for American businesses wanting to do secure business with those on the Island.