What do Illinois Gov. George Ryan and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura have in common with Arkansas chicken producers, Texas rice growers and Utah medical companies? They'd all like to see an end to the 40-year-old U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba.
Although lifting the embargo is unlikely anytime soon, pressure is growing at the state level for improving relations with the Cuban government. Elected officials from across the country are traveling to Cuba with trade delegations from their respective states this year in hopes of negotiating contracts for the sale of agriculture and health-related goods under the narrow confines of current U.S. restrictions.
The recession has made the quest to open the Cuban market a greater priority for some state officials than it had been previously. Others, such as Gov. Ryan, are taking advantage of humanitarian relief trips to press for changing U.S. policy.
Ryan became the first governor in 40 years to visit Cuba when he traveled there in October of 1999. His trip helped ease U.S. restrictions on the sale of agricultural and medical goods to the Caribbean island. He returned in January from a second trip that included an evening sharing lobsters and cigars with Fidel Castro. The Cuban leader has indicated he'd like to buy more U.S. products, but the embargo only allows cash sales of agricultural and medical goods.
Before leaving Cuba, Ryan told an international conference of radiologists in Havana he doesn't understand why the U.S. government won't trade with Cuba the same way it trades with other communist nations such as China.
"We in the United States have turned the other cheek with numerous nations that once confronted our ideals of peace and freedom. We have not offered that same courtesy to the Cuban people," Ryan said. He called Cuba a "neighbor just 90 miles from U.S. shores" that could provide an excellent market for Illinois businesses and farmers.
Minnesota's Gov. Ventura shares that view. Ventura has yet to visit Cuba, but he told reporters recently he hopes to travel there soon on a trade mission.
"He thinks it's totally ridiculous that we don't have a trade policy that includes Cuba," says Ventura spokesman John Wodele.
Minnesota is one of several states where lawmakers are expected to consider resolutions this year urging an end to the U.S. embargo. California, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Washington are also considering action.
Illinois became the first state in the country in 1999 to call for an end to the embargo on food and medical supplies. A second resolution was approved by Illinois lawmakers last year urging a complete end to all trade sanctions against the Caribbean Island, including financial and travel restrictions.
The Texas legislature passed a similar resolution last year. Louisiana and Arkansas did likewise.
The National Conference of State Legislatures, which represents all 50 states, went on record in 2000 against the embargo.
The resolutions haven't made much difference in Congress. South Florida's House delegation, backed by Miami's anti-Castro community, still maintains enough political clout to thwart attempts to reverse the long-standing American policy.
"I don't see a darn thing changing," says Doug Farquhar, who tracks trade issues for the NCSL. "(State Lawmakers) are not going to get any political backlash for going down there to see what they can bring home. But as long as Castro's in power, there's always going to be strong opposition to ending the embargo."
Most state delegations that travel to Cuba on trade or humanitarian missions realize the chances are slim that any sizable commercial contracts will result from their efforts. U.S. policy prohibits credit transactions with the cash-strapped Castro regime or loans of any kind from U.S. based institutions. Still, that hasn't stopped states from reaching out. About a dozen state delegations visited in 2001 and at least that many are expected to go this year. The trips do pay off sometimes.
Cuba has recently entered into cash-payment contracts for wheat, corn, chicken and even medical supplies with companies from Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas and Minnesota.
A delegation from Kentucky is in Cuba now trying to drum up business. Minnesota and Kansas delegations are planning trips this spring. And Michigan would like to send a group later this year made up of business and academic interests.
The Washington , D.C.-based Cuba Policy Foundation recently completed a study putting the cost to the states in lost agricultural revenue because of the Cuban embargo at more than $1.2 billion. The losses, the foundation said, ranged from a high of $167 million in Arkansas to a low of $22 million in Alabama.
An independent study cited by the foundation put the losses in agricultural exports for Texas alone at $685 million-per-year over the past decade. If the embargo were lifted, according to Rice University Economist Ron Soligo, Texas could expect to do $1.3 billion to $2 billion in business a year with Cuba.
Many of the lawmakers who have made recent visits to Cuba, however, view the trade considerations as only a tiny piece of the benefits to be gained by normalizing relations with Castro's government.
"Cuba is only a tiny blip in terms of the overall U.S. trade issue," says Minnesota Rep. Phyllis Kahn.
Kahn, who has introduced a resolution in the Minnesota House urging an end to the embargo, contends the United States has much more to gain from what it can learn from Cuban innovations in education, especially literacy programs, and healthcare. She also notes that as the United States embarks on its effort to wipe out terrorism around the globe, it would be better to have Cuba as a friend. "The point is it's just a slam-dunk for us on a lot of issues to have (normalized relations), especially now," she says.
The anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation sees that kind of talk as naive. "It bothers us because it's giving legitimacy to a regime that has denied its own people any legitimacy for over 40 years," says CANF executive vice president Dennis Hays.
He said state efforts to open the Cuban market to more U.S. goods will likely fail, not because of the embargo, but "because they have no money in Cuba."
"Any due diligence is going to show that Cuba is not a good place to invest," Hays added.
Iowa Sen. Steve King agrees. He went to Cuba last May thinking "we should end the embargo and start sending Iowa goods down there as fast as we can." But when he got there, he says he found a cash-starved country ruled by "Castro's iron fist."
"The only cash cow they've got now is really tourism. And Castro is raking that like crazy just to keep his regime propped up," King said."My Feeling is now we should just ride this embargo out until Castro goes to the next life and we see what happens in the transition."