By ANDREW DeMILLO (AP) – Jul 31, 2009
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Gov. Mike Beebe said Friday he returned from a visit to Cuba optimistic that Arkansas can increase its agricultural exports to the communist country.
Beebe, who joined a growing roster of governors and members of Congress who have visited the island to promote trade, wouldn't say whether he thinks the federal government should end its 47-year-old trade embargo with Cuba. But he noted he traveled there amid signs that trade restrictions may ease.
The governor said he thinks there's a chance for Arkansas to boost its trade with Cuba, primarily in rice and poultry.
"I'm optimistic because, just on the pure merits, we've got something that is better than most folks in the rest of the world and can do it better and can do it efficiently and can do it more productively," Beebe told reporters at a Capitol news conference. "I don't think anybody can grow rice or can have the kind of livestock and poultry efficiency that Arkansas has, and I think that's proven by the relative stature that our companies have."
Arkansas already has limited trade with Cuba under terms of the U.S. embargo. Exemptions were created to the embargo in 2000 to allow limited agricultural trade with Cuba.
Last year, the state exported $32,996 in goods to Cuba, all of which was cotton and fabric, said Scott Hardin, a spokesman with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.
That was a steep drop from 2007, when the state exported $1.3 million in meat and poultry to the island. In 2006, the state exported $1.4 million worth of goods, mostly rice and cereal.
Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Richard Bell has blamed the dropoff on a rise in rice prices and a rule requiring cash in advance before shipping products.
With the trip, Beebe became the latest in a string of governors, including those from Nebraska, Idaho and Maine, who have traveled to Cuba to promote trade. The potential market also has led Arkansas' congressional delegation to visit the nation in the past.
Representatives from Riceland Foods Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc. also traveled to Cuba on the latest trade mission.
Experts say Beebe's trip comes amid the potential for even more trade between the United States and Cuba under the Obama administration. Officials from Cuba and the U.S. discussed immigration this month for the first time since 2003, and the Obama administration has lifted restrictions on Cuban-Americans who want to travel or send money to the island.
"I think it's fair to say there is a new climate," said Kirby Jones, founder and president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association. "I think people are seeing a change in attitude, and so companies and states are looking at this and saying there may be a new day here."
Jones, who also is president of Alamar Associates, a consulting firm that works with companies seeking business in Cuba, said he traveled to the nation last year with officials from New York, Delaware and California. Jones said he wasn't aware of any governors who have traveled to Cuba since Obama took office in January.
Beebe said he didn't make any formal agreements with Cuban officials during the trip but that he believes the country wants even more trade with the state.
"Arkansas is particularly well situated to be a major exporter of our goods and products to Cuba, and it's a new market, in terms of expansion," Beebe said. "They want to do more. They want to increase the share of what Cuba buys from Arkansas."
One challenge may be Cuba's president, who said earlier this week that the country can't pin all its problems on the trade embargo. Raul Castro on Sunday called agricultural production Cuba's top priority and a matter of national security.
Bill Reed, vice president of public affairs for Riceland, said he doesn't see Castro's comments as a threat to Arkansas' attempt to expand its market in Cuba.
"You still have 11 million people, and they do not have the agricultural capacity, the inputs that Arkansas farmers have, the equipment, the crop protectants, the fertilizer, even the technology, to do the type of agriculturel technology that we do in Arkansas," Reed said. "I don't expect it would decrease the propsect of imports in the foreseeable future."
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