Like other states along the Gulf Coast, Louisiana has long had visions of enlarging its trade relationships with countries to the south. And like its neighbors, the state has focused its efforts primarily on Central and South America, and to some extent Mexico.

What very few trade advocates in Louisiana and elsewhere saw coming late last year was the potential for brand new opportunities to do business with a long “lost” trading partner.

The move in December by President Barrack Obama to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba took most people by surprise. But after the gasps subsided, it didn’t take long for local businesspeople to start considering the possibilities. After all, before Fidel Castro seized power there in 1959, Cuba was Louisiana’s top trading partner.

Food, beverages and agricultural products were among the top exports that left the Port of New Orleans for Cuba in the days before the communist dictatorship took hold.

Cuba was the biggest buyer of American rice – and Louisiana was a major supplier of the export – until 1960, when the United States government imposed an embargo on trade with the island nation.

While the United States eased some of its trade restrictions in 2001 to allow for agricultural and humanitarian aid to Cuba after a hurricane devastated the country, the embargo remains in place and only an act of Congress can lift it. But the White House has indicated some commerce could pick up under current laws, possibly including the export of building materials for residential construction and some agricultural equipment.

The rebuilding of diplomatic ties in no way assures that trade doors will fully open, but growing numbers of U.S. businesses are showing support for the idea.

This month, local business and economic development leaders hope to lay the foundation for a return to pre-embargo levels of commerce by means of a trade conference in the Cuban capital.

The New Orleans-based International Cuba Society, along with a local Christian nonprofit group, has partnered with the University of Havana to host the Cuba Hoy (Cuba Today) Conference in Havana. The March 14-21 gathering will bring business and civic leaders together in a networking event that examines Cuban laws and policy and how they might affect expanded trade.

Surprisingly, New Orleans attorney Romualdo “Romi” Gonzalez, who chairs and helped found the International Cuba Society in 2009, says he and others began planning the conference several months before the White House announced plans to restore diplomatic relations.

“Last April we hosted a Cuban delegation that came to New Orleans, and at that time they invited us to bring leaders to Havana,” Gonzalez says, noting that the local groups have been working to organize the visit to Cuba ever since. “Obama’s announcement really gave us a huge boost,” he says.

The aim of Cuba Today is to explore the potential for doing business in Cuba, particularly focusing on foreign investment in property; preservation issues that may affect the pace of urban revitalization; energy development and environmental considerations; and disaster resilience.

Gonzalez says other Gulf South cities also have been exploring Cuban trade potential, so New Orleans needs to carve some inroads in order to be prepared to compete. “We want to make sure Louisiana gets a foot in the door,” he says.

Just how much business could be at stake is impossible to guess, but Port of New Orleans President Gary LaGrange said recently that tourism could benefit in a big way. If the trade lanes open, cruise ships could start sailing to Cuba, using New Orleans as a home port, he said.

Chartered flights between New Orleans and Havana could also be in the cards.

Of the limited quantity of exports that now flow from the United States to Cuba, a large portion, including poultry and rice, come from Louisiana, and early indications suggest the volume may grow.

In January, the USA Rice Federation announced revised trade payment rules that will make rice sales to Cuba easier, in part by allowing United States financial institutions to open accounts at Cuban banks to facilitate transactions.

Kevin Berken, a rice farmer from Lake Arthur, says the new payment policy should widen the export pipeline. He says Cubans grow about 400,000 tons of rice annually and import another 600,000 tons. “They could just about take all of Louisiana’s crop,” he says.

Along with increased trade, Gonzalez looks forward to an easing of travel restrictions that would allow him to renew old relationships.

Gonzalez and his sister came to the United States alone, when he was just 13 years old, while his parents remained in Havana, where his father was a bishop in the Episcopal Church of Cuba.

The children lived with a host family for a time and attended a boarding school. Eventually, after earning a bachelor’s degree from Sewanee University, Gonzalez returned to New Orleans where he attended and graduated from Tulane University Law School.

“Louisiana is my home now,” he says, “and I want to do whatever I can to help the state do business with Cuba.”

Laying the Groundwork

The International Cuba Society and a local Episcopalian group called At the Threshold partnered with the University of Havana to present what they hope is the first annual Cuba Today Conference.

When: March 14-21, 2015
Where: Havana, Cuba
What: The conference will offer seminars and networking events of interest to lawyers, business and civic leaders and others interested in the possibilities presented by the opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

See for more information.