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US: Port of New Orleans will serve Cuba

Nearly two years ago, President Barack Obama announced that relations with Cuba would be normalized. In early October, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards led a group of state officials and 50 local, business, port and education leaders to Cuba. They met with that nation’s ministers of trade, agriculture and foreign affairs and the National Port Administration.

“The existing embargo against Cuba covers all goods and merchandise, except for humanitarian cargo,” Matt Gresham, spokesman for the Port of New Orleans, said last week. Humanitarian cargo includes food, medical equipment and supplies, and certain bulk chemicals.

“Following a U.S. decision in 2000 to allow Cuba humanitarian aid and goods, poultry has been the main export sent there from New Orleans, with shipments of 20,000 to 24,000 tons yearly—spiking to more than 32,000 tons in 2011,” Gresham said.

In 2000, the United States added an exemption to the Cuban embargo for some agricultural products, including chicken, along with pharmaceuticals and medical devices. Trade with Cuba expanded as a result. But a change in U.S. Department of Treasury rules in early 2005 required that sellers receive payment from Cuban buyers before boats carrying goods could leave U.S. ports.

After President Obama’s move to normalize relations in late 2014, the U.S. Treasury altered its interpretation of “cash in advance” before shipment to “cash before a transfer of title and control.”

Last week, Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain said Louisiana is looking to export state-grown rice, soybeans, corn, poultry and sweet potatoes to Cuba, along with wheat, milk, cheese and pork that are sent down the Mississippi River from northerly states. He led a huge, 94-person delegation to Cuba in late July to promote trade, economic development and tourism.

“Imports already provide 80 percent of Cuba’s food, but more are needed to improve diets, especially in urban areas,” Strain said last week. 

Cuba has been allowed to buy U.S. farm goods with cash since 2000. But Louisiana’s agricultural shipments to the island fell from over $140 million in 2006 to $14 million last year, Strain said. That was because of Cuba’s lack of foreign exchange, austerity measures adopted by its officials in 2008, and better financing terms offered by nations other than the United States.

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