POLITICS

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott heads delegation to Cuba, explores $57M trade deal

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott visits Cuba's Special Development Zone of Mariel, Dec. 1, 2015.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott visits Cuba's Special Development Zone of Mariel, Dec. 1, 2015.  (ap)

On Monday, Greg Abbott became the fourth American governor to travel to Cuba since the island nation and the United States moved to normalize relations a year ago.

The Texas Republican arrived in Havana with a delegation of 25 people, including First Lady Cecilia Abbott, that will explore business opportunities between Cuba and the Lone Star State.

The goal, according to the Austin American-Statesman, is to promote the sale of Texas agricultural goods to Cubans.

Other governors that have gone to Cuba on trade missions this year are Andrew Cuomo of New York, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, Terry McAuliffe of Virginia.

In announcing his Cuba trade mission trip last week, Abbott said in a statement quoted in the Houston Chronicle: "With a new era of eased trade and travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba – and as the 12th-largest economy in the world – Texas has an opportunity to capitalize and expand its economic footprint at home and abroad.”

“Opening the door to business with Texas will expand free enterprise and the freedom that flows from it. I look forward to expanding business opportunities for both Texas and Cuba."

Texas officials believe that a robust trade relationship with Cuba could bring the state revenues in the neighborhood of $57 million in new exports, the Chronicle said.

Ultimately, however, it will take dramatically more easing, or altogether lifting, of remaining restrictions on trade and other exchanges between the two countries, the officials and business leaders say.

"The key is cash, and right now the Cubans don't have much to spend," said Ernest Bezdek, the Port of Beaumont's director of trade development and member of the delegation, in an interview with the Chronicle. "But when the embargo is eventually lifted, when tourism is allowed, there will be millions and millions of dollars (that will) develop in additional trade. And Texas is in a good position to benefit tremendously from that."

Abbott’s trip to Cuba – his second international trip, after Mexico in September – includes a tour of Cuba’s Port of Mariel, meetings with José Luis Toledo Santander, president of the Constitutional Commission of the National Assembly of the People’s Power, and with Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment, and the Cuba Chamber of Commerce, among others.

Abbott’s trip is seen as an example of the growing interest in the business opportunities of Cuba, especially given that he is a conservative Republican — a group that has been staunchly against normalizing relations with the communist nation.

The trip is scheduled to conclude Wednesday night.

“This is symbolically important,” the Statesman quoted James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a recently formed nonprofit advocacy group lobbying Congress to end travel and trade restrictions with Cuba, as saying. “There’s nothing that says mainstream Republican Party, anti-Obama, anti-everything about his agenda than the governor of Texas. It means something.”

“Opening trade with Cuba could be a watershed moment for Texas’ agricultural interests and its seaports,” Williams said. 

The lifting of the embargo faces stiff opposition in Congress. Many in Congress opposed the Obama administration’s surprise move last December to restore diplomatic relations with a nation critics say continues to oppress its people and refuses to take steps toward a democratic form of government.

They say the easing of trade and travel restrictions that the Obama administration set in motion rewards the regime of Raul Castro and does little to make life better for everyday Cubans.

Sebastian Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, said to the Statesman that increased business ties between the two countries will serve only the regime and strengthen it.

Arcos said the Cuban regime continues to control every aspect of people’s lives with an iron fist.

“They’re essentially being rewarded for misbehaving,” Arcos said.

Those who support normalizing relations, however, argue that the trade embargo that was in place for decades did nothing to end the dictatorship or improve the lives of Cubans, and that it is time to try a different approach.

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