BATON ROUGE - Gov. John Bel Edwards will lead a Louisiana trade mission to Cuba next week, setting the stage for greater economic and cultural exchanges between the Caribbean nation and its leading trade partner among U.S. states. Louisiana Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain, Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Don Pierson and Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Shawn Wilson will join Governor Edwards and approximately 50 other state, regional, local, educational and private business leaders on the mission.
The Oct. 3-7 trip will place high priorities on expanding trade and commerce between Cuba and Louisiana, with executives from five Louisiana port districts participating in the trip and meeting with government ministers who lead trade, agriculture and foreign affairs for Cuba. The historic trip represents the first visit by a Louisiana governor since former Gov. Kathleen Blanco led a three-day mission in 2005, one that created greater trading of agricultural products between the two economies.
For the past decade, Louisiana has ranked as the No. 1 exporting state to Cuba, with more than $1.4 billion in cumulative exports. Virginia is second at $424 million. Significantly, the trip follows President Barack Obama’s decision in December 2014 to normalize relations with Cuba, which led to the March 2016 visit of President Obama and his family to Cuba, the first by a U.S. president in nearly 90 years. In July, Commissioner Strain led a Louisiana delegation on an exploratory trip to Cuba to lay the foundation for the governor’s trip next week.
“While we experienced significant levels of trade with Cuba in recent years, the sanctions in place over the past half-century have largely limited that trade to essential items, such as food and medicine,” Gov. Edwards said. “There remains much work to be done before our nation’s embargo on broader trade with Cuba is lifted. However, there are new opportunities that can benefit Louisiana, and I am optimistic that we will be able to build on our existing trade partnership with Cuba following this bipartisan visit. We want Louisiana to be first in line to any new opportunities with Cuba, particularly the import, export and foreign direct investment possibilities that could range into the billions of dollars in the coming years. For those reasons, we are eager to embark on this trade mission and to place Louisiana in a unique position of leadership with respect to Cuba.”
Subject to potential delays posed by Hurricane Matthew, Gov. Edwards plans to depart for Havana on Monday, with an opening reception and dinner planned with Cuban officials that night. Tuesday’s agenda includes scheduled meetings with the Cuban ministers of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Foreign Investment, along with the National Port Administration of Cuba.
Wednesday’s schedule will include meetings at the Port of Mariel and the Port of Havana, where Cuban and Louisiana port officials will exchange information about their capabilities and market opportunities. Louisiana executives from the Port of New Orleans, Port of South Louisiana, Port of Greater Baton Rouge, Port of Lake Charles and the Louisiana Offshore Terminal Authority will participate in the mission with Cuban port and trade leaders. In addition, the LED Office of International Commerce and the DOTD Office of Multimodal Commerce will support efforts to generate more trade and foreign direct investment exchanges between Cuba and Louisiana.
“Louisiana’s commercial, transportation and cultural ties with Cuba run deep and offer great common ground for our new engagement with Cuba,” LED Secretary Pierson said. “This year, the Louisiana Legislature charged LED with developing a plan for the State of Louisiana that tackles two big goals: one, the development and improvement of trade relations with Cuba; and, two, a strategic analysis that identifies Louisiana’s unique economic opportunities relative to Cuba. This delegation led by Gov. Edwards will go a long way toward informing our analysis for the Legislature, which we will provide early next year. We’re also indebted to Commissioner Strain for leading the July trip to Cuba and for continuing his collaboration with us to maximize Louisiana’s opportunities in Cuba.”
On Thursday, the trade mission will focus on agriculture, with visits to private, state and cooperative farms; a planned meeting with the Cuban minister of agriculture; tours of local agricultural markets; a visit to Havana’s school of veterinary medicine; and meetings with other university leaders.
“Cuba imports 80 percent of its produce and Cuba is in great need of quality products Louisiana can provide,” said Commissioner Strain, who leads Louisiana’s Department of Agriculture and Forestry. “For example, Cubans are the largest consumers of rice per capita in the Western Hemisphere. High-quality rice is one of many agricultural products we grow. With the proximity of our ports, we are an obvious trading partner with Cuba. We hope to continue to build this relationship with Cuba and provide its people and visitors with Louisiana products. Currently, Cuba imports $2 billion in agricultural products each year. They need wheat, corn, rice, pork, poultry, soybeans, petroleum and mechanical implements. This exchange could be truly beneficial for both Louisiana and Cuba.”
Following a farewell dinner Thursday night, the Louisiana delegation will depart Havana for New Orleans on Friday morning. The State of Louisiana engaged U.S.-based Cuba Education Travel to coordinate travel arrangements and secure participant visas for the weeklong trip to Cuba.
In addition to the state government agencies, other groups represented on the Cuban trade mission include the Committee of 100 for Economic Development, LSU, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, the Water Institute of the Gulf and a variety of leading Louisiana businesses.