Supporters of lifting the U.S.-Cuba trade embargo say North Carolina businesses – particularly those in agricultural, pharmaceutical and travel industries – could see new opportunities if relations with the Caribbean country improve.
But the state needs to move fast, says Louis Perez, director of the Cuba academic program at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
“Everybody is rushing to Cuba,” Perez said. “The longer officials in the state delay, the harder it’s going to be.”
President Barack Obama highlighted business and investment opportunities during his two-day visit to the island this week. His message is on point, says U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Raleigh who was one of nearly 40 lawmakers on the Cuba trip.
“People need to understand their constituents stand to gain here,” Price said in an interview after he returned. “I think the potential on the Cuban side (for economic benefit) is also great.”
Here’s a look at possibilities:
1. Room to grow for N.C. farmers
Though the U.S. has banned most trade with Cuba for more than 50 years, North Carolina agricultural products are exported to the island under exceptions to the U.S. embargo for agricultural and pharmaceuticals – two of North Carolina’s largest industries.
$8.4M estimated export value from N.C. meat producers to Cuba
The state’s agricultural exports to Cuba may be worth nearly $19.6 million already, according to an agricultural economics study from the Center for North American Studies at Texas A&M University published in 2009. A more recent estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau put the figure at $8.4 million in exports from North Carolina meat producers alone. Other N.C. exports include chicken, turkey, grains and soybeans.
“I have seen in Cuban supermarkets in Havana frozen turkeys from North Carolina,” said Perez, a UNC history professor who has traveled to Cuba extensively over the past 35 years. Perez is an academic expert on Cuban-American relations, history and culture who notes that as tourism grows in Cuba, so will demand for food.
One agricultural professional sees the benefits also flowing the other way. Jeff Ensminger, a chef and the founder of a N.C. nonprofit working on sustainable agriculture, envisions international farming co-operatives.
“There are items that they produce there but we are not able to produce,” Ensminger said, mentioning Cuba’s tropical, warm climate and ample farming land.
Ensminger runs NEEM, an acronym for Natural Environmental Ecological Management and also a reference to the Neem tree. His Durham farm is the largest registered sustainable urban farm in North Carolina. The group organizes regular trips to Cuba and helps local farmers learn about chemical-free growing.
Cuban farmers have mastered sustainable farming, largely out of necessity, Ensminger said. After the fall of the Soviet Union, most farmers could not afford certain farming products like chemical fertilizers. Learning the Cuban methods, he said, can help North Carolina’s small farmers save money and produce stronger crops.
Ensminger says he’s optimistic about Obama’s recent Cuba trip and the chance Congress might lift the embargo.
“Ending the embargo is a freight train that we cannot stop,” he said. “Most of the red states are agricultural states that would love to be doing multimillion trade contracts in Cuba.”
Rep. Price said the end of the embargo “may not be as far off as we think . . . That kind of die-hard, ideological conviction has weakened a good deal.”
Only Congress can lift the trade embargo. Obama has taken other steps, including scaling back some regulations that have prevented many forms of business between the U.S. and Cuba.
Food is not the only point for trade. Timber and raw forestry products are potential exports to a country that needs to expand and repair its infrastructure to draw more tourists, says Linda Andrews, a lobbyist for the state’s Farm Bureau.
Farming equipment manufacturing in Cuba, too, is possible. Earlier this year, a tractor company part-owned by a Raleigh man earned federal government approval to start manufacturing in Cuba – the first American manufacturer allowed to do so in more than 50 years.
2. Academic, medical exchanges possible
University students, faculty and healthcare professionals may also realize new opportunities.
“Cuba has a very advanced culture of medicine,” Perez said. “They are very much involved in developing therapies and vaccinations that are right now very much of interest in the world of pharmaceuticals.”
Already, researchers at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., are working with Cuban counterparts for a new clinical trial in the U.S. for a lung cancer vaccine developed in Cuba. White House officials announced this week the clinical trial would begin this summer.
The University of North Carolina is in the early stage of planning a partnership between its school of health and Cuba’s Ministry of Health, Perez said. Just last week, UNC’s medical school hosted a Cuban physician; the university’s dentistry program is exploring a faculty exchange with Cuban academics.
Currently, there are two UNC students studying at the University of Havana and several graduate students are working on research projects about Cuba.
Price says Cuba has excellent primary health care access, and its medical graduates could help improve access to medical care in the United States through exchanges that would also benefit them with additional training at U.S. schools.
We had the feeling of a historic occasion. This opening up of the Cuba-America relationship has been coming for a long time but this really put the seal on it.
U.S. Rep. David Price on Obama visiting Cuba
Cuba’s government has invested widely in biotechnology and pharmaceutical development, says Ruben Carbonell, a Cuban-born researcher and chemical engineering professor at N.C. State University.
The country is well-positioned for international health collaborations, Carbonell said in a news release from the university. He noted Cubans have developed numerous infectious disease vaccines, oncology products and treatments for chronic illnesses such as diabetes, arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
3. Charlotte-Havana route in works
Businesses, students, healthcare professionals and tourists interested in Cuba will likely need new ways to reach the country from North Carolina. The market for new sea and air travel, as well as special tours and travel arrangements, presents potential for new businesses in the state, Perez said.
American Airlines just this month applied for permission to fly nonstop from Charlotte to Havana. The airline is proposing once-daily trips from Charlotte on an Airbus A319, which could ferry 144 passengers over the Florida Straits.
Airline officials did not return requests for information about the economic impact of added flights to Charlotte-Douglas International Airport. An airport spokeswoman said Charlotte welcomes new business but she did not release estimates of economic gains.
The U.S. Department of Transportation will rule later this year on which airline carriers get routes to Cuba.
New commercial flight options may take business away from charter groups – currently one of the few ways Americans can travel to Cuba – but “there will always be a cohort of travelers who need assistance,” Perez said. Getting around Cuba, finding hotels and communicating outside hubs where English is spoken presents a challenge, he said, for some travelers.
North Carolinians hoping to do business with Cuba should visit and get to know the country, Ensminger said. “Fifty-six years of isolation hasn’t been beneficial to anyone ... The only way to really understand Cuba is to go.”
Economic and cultural exchanges between Americans and Cuba, Price said, could be the backbone of better relations.
“Part of it is the prospect of political liberalization in Cuba,” he said. “And the kind of people-to-people relationship that should come naturally between such close neighbors.”