If New Orleans is indeed the northernmost port of the Caribbean, then the next stop on the way south is Cuba. The U.S. trade embargo has severely limited commercial and cultural exchange between New Orleans and its Caribbean neighbor for close to 50 years, but that proximity is now spurring early preparations for potential business opportunities as rumblings of change in America’s relationship with the communist island nation grow louder.  

President Obama has eased limits on family travel and cash gifts to Cuba and authorized greater telecommunications links. These join earlier national policy changes allowing limited shipments of agricultural and medical goods to Cuba.

“New Orleans as a port city is the gateway to the American heartland, and New Orleans has already benefited from changes,” to the Cuban trade policy, says Dr. Christopher Sabatini, policy director at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas, who spoke in New Orleans at a World Trade Center meeting on Cuban trade in May.

Louisiana already leads the nation in Cuban exports thanks to shipments of rice and other crops valued at $256 million last year. Sabatini says oil and gas production, infrastructure development and tourism are all industries in Cuba where New Orleans-area business stand to gain significantly if trade opens up further. 

“The question is one of pre-positioning, for companies to get their brand there and get their noses under the tent,” he says. 

This spring, New Orleans City Councilman Arnie Fielkow convened a panel of local business leaders to examine how the city can renew cultural and economic ties with Cuba as the thaw in U.S. policy continues.

“Other cities have aggressively established and cultivated relationships with Cuba to prepare themselves for future changes in U.S. policy,” says Fielkow. “New Orleans needs to do everything within our powers and abilities to take advantage of bilateral trade opportunities around the world to grow our local economy.”

The panel concluded that the city must forge relationships with Cuban officials, businesses and cultural entities, perhaps through official visits, and decided to look into creating a sister city relationship with Mariel, Cuba.

But at the World Trade Center event, local Cuban-born attorney George Fowler gave voice to the concern that increased trade with Cuba helps prop up dictator Fidel Castro’s regime. 

“I know everyone wants to do business in Cuba and smoke Cuban cigars and go to the hotels, but human rights is always the main issue,” Fowler says. “If you do business in Cuba, you’re not doing business with the Cuban people, but with Fidel Castro.”