Gov. Asa Hutchinson and a delegation of nearly 50 Arkansas business leaders and state officials are in Cuba for a series of meetings with government officials.
The communist island nation and its 11 million residents have for years been eyed as an untapped marketplace for Arkansas products, especially agriculture. With diplomatic relations being restored between the U.S. and Cuba, Hutchinson said this was an ideal time to begin building a relationship. The visit is the first by an American governor since the U.S. re-opened its embassy there in July.
"The purpose of the trip is to put Arkansas first in line or top of the line for trade opportunities when those open up. As to when those will open up will depend partly on what happens in the United States Congress as well as the decisions that our business leaders make,” Hutchinson said from Havana during a conference call with reporters Tuesday.
Hutchinson is a former congressman who supported an embargo of Cuba, which has been in place for more than half a century since Fidel Castro toppled the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Hutchinson later helped enforce the embargo as the head of Homeland Security, but now supports a “gradual step-by-step process” to ease restrictions.
There was a reception for the Arkansas delegation at the U.S. ambassador’s residence Monday night, which included Cuban dignitaries who told Hutchinson it was the first time they had ever been at the residence or on U.S. soil in Cuba, which was prohibited prior to the restoration of diplomatic relations.
The delegation is made up of representatives from agricultural and education sectors, including some from Arkansas-based companies like Tyson and Riceland Foods.
"We have an opportunity of course first in agricultural sales. My encouragement is that Arkansas is well-positioned geographically, logistically, as well as with the top-quality products for this marketplace in poultry, pork and rice," Hutchinson said.
But the governor believes it will take time before the state can see benefits.
"What underscores the opportunities is the requirement for patience. You think about Cuba, for over 50 years has had their economy stymied and they’ve been isolated from technology, and so it’s going to take them some time to adjust to the new opportunities in the marketplace," Hutchinson said.
He believes the Cuban government will need to make economic reforms, including the implementation of better banking regulations, to be compatible with the U.S. Today transactions are cash-based. The governor said the first step needed will be authorizing credit sales, which Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas is pushing in Washington.
Hutchinson acknowledged that there is still opposition from some of his fellow Republicans, especially many Cuban-Americans, to the restoration of relations while a Castro remains in power.
"You have simply little or no political freedom. That’s not something we identify with in Arkansas and the United States, so they’re very legitimate concerns. The fact is we’ve had an embargo for 55 years. I think it’s a reasonable step to say that lets try something different," Hutchinson said.
"Let’s see the response from the government of Cuba. Hopefully they will lessen the centralized control (of government) and recognize the opportunities for the people of Cuba by expanded trade. Hopefully that will translate into expanded political freedom. So it’s a step-by-step process that’s worth trying."
The delegation is to return to Arkansas Wednesday night.