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Coalition for Cuba trade urges end to restrictions.

Engage Cuba President James Williams said last week that Cuba would pledge to buy a significant amount of rice from the U.S. should Congress allow trade on credit between the countries.

Williams spoke during a news conference at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock to launch an "Engage Cuba" state council in Arkansas. The 37-member Arkansas State Council is a group of agribusiness, community and academic leaders committed to engaging Cuba through diplomacy and trade.

Engage Cuba is a bipartisan coalition of private companies and organizations lobbying legislators to end the trade embargo and travel ban on Cuba. The restrictions prevent American tourists from visiting the country and require Cuba to buy American products with cash and pay for them in advance.

Arkansas is the fifth Engage Cuba state council; others are in Minnesota, Ohio, Louisiana and Tennessee.

Williams said last week that the group is finalizing a memorandum of understanding over future rice purchases between the island's government and USA Rice, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The agreement states that when credit terms are available, Cuba will make a significant purchase from USA Rice, Williams said, with specifics to be worked out after the embargo is lifted.

"It's a really nice step forward," Williams said. He couldn't offer an estimate of the economic impact that lifting the embargo would have on Arkansas. But he said Cuba spends $2 billion a year on agricultural imports, and the United States' market share is about 10 percent.

Williams estimates are that if the embargo is lifted and credit terms are offered, the U.S. market share would increase to between 60 and 80 percent.

Cuba spends about $300 million a year on rice, and 25 percent of its agricultural imports is soy, Williams said.

"Between soy and rice, you're looking at $500 million of opportunity for U.S. ag producers," he said. "Given that Arkansas is 50 percent of U.S. rice, we're talking about a $150 million opportunity every year, just proportionally.

"But, realistically, it's much bigger than that because we're looking at about over $5 billion a year in trade with Cuba if we lifted the embargo."

Arkansas industries could also gain 11 million customers, an Engage Cuba news release said. Its top exports--rice, soybeans and corn--are the most in-demand products in Cuba.

Williams said lifting the embargo would bring jobs and, if the travel ban is lifted, Cuba could see 2 million to 4 million American tourists, which would increase the country's demand for agricultural imports.

Williams said 70 to 80 percent of Americans support a new approach with Cuba, and the state councils have been launched to amplify their voices so that Congress takes notice.

Arkansas is ground zero, he said, with Gov. Asa Hutchinson, U.S. Sen. John Boozman and U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford helping lead the effort to lift the embargo and ban.

[PHOTO BY SARAH CAMPBELL]

Caption: Engage Cuba President James Williams speaks as (from left) Juan Lamigueiro Leon, deputy chief of mission for the Cuban Embassy in the United States; Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward; Robert Moery, liaison to the governor; and USA Rice Chairman Dow Brantley await their turn to at the podium during a press conference Monday morning.

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Title Annotation:Economic Development
Author:Campbell, Sarah
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Apr 18, 2016
Words:538
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