US-Cuba thaw could benefit industries

By Paul Wiseman, AP

WASHINGTON–Freighters once carried Cuban nickel and limestone to the port of New Orleans and North Dakota beans to Havana. Cuban families ate bowls of American rice, while U.S. tourists flocked to casinos and nightclubs in Havana.

The United States’ commercial ties with Cuba were broken 54 years ago after Fidel Castro took over. Now U.S.-Cuba trade is poised to resume: U.S. President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced plans to re-establish diplomat relations with Havana, and economic ties are expected to follow.

Among those eager for access to a Cuban market cut off by an economic embargo are U.S. farmers, travel companies, energy producers and importers of rum and cigars.

Gary Hufbauer and Barbara Kotschwar of the Peterson Institute for International Economics estimate that exports of U.S. goods to Cuba could reach US$4.3 billion a year, compared to less than US$360 million last year. And Cuban merchandise exports to the U.S. could go to US$5.8 billion a year from nothing now.

Congress will still have to act to lift economic sanctions against Cuba. But by loosening restrictions on travel and permitting travelers to use U.S. credit and debit cards in Cuba, among other things, Obama may have started a process that can’t be reversed.

Not everyone supports the change in U.S. policy. Victor Benitez, longtime general manager of a car dealership north of Miami, says he would not return to the country he fled with his family in 1969 �X at least not until it became a democracy. ��I’m proud to be an American,�� he said. ��I’m sorry I cannot say I’m Cuban even though in my heart I feel very Cuban.��

But many U.S. businesses are already perking up at the prospect of regaining access to Cuba.

Rice and Beans Before the Cuban revolution, U.S. farmers did big business with Cuba, exporting beans, rice and other commodities. The U.S. now exports limited amounts of farm products.

��It’s an enormous rice market,�� says Dwight Roberts, CEO of the U.S. Rice Producers Association. Roberts believes Cubans eventually could import the 400,000 tons of U.S. rice they consumed before Castro’s Communist revolution.

Replacing Cuba’s Junkers