Missouri governor sees trade potential with Cuba

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — As the U.S. government revisits its diplomatic relations with Cuba following President Barack Obama’s decision last month, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said he hopes to increase the state’s relations with the country.

On Thursday, Nixon visited the Missouri Farm Bureau to discuss his agricultural trade mission with the communist country he announced last week during his State of the State address.

“My job is to be governor of the state,’ he said. ‘The Senate and president have some issues to work out, and they have to maintain a strong position for the United States so that we get the human rights things that need to be done and the financial matters clarified so that the dollars can move in a predictable way, and there are a number of defense issues. But at the same time, there’s nothing but a green light for us to sell food and fuel and the substances that they clothe themselves with.”

More plainly, Nixon said: “I’m a governor, they’re folks in D.C.”

Nixon said he began working on his Cuba plan within days of Obama’s announcement last month. Ahead of his State of the State address, Nixon went to Washington, where he met with other state officials to launch the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba.

Last year, Missouri alone exported $14 billion worth of agriculture products. Nixon said he believes Cuba, which has the capacity to import $4.3 billion in food and agricultural products each year, presents an opportunity for Missouri farmers.

“In a competitive world, we cannot ignore 11 million potential customers for our products just 90 miles from our border,” he said.

Nixon said Obama’s decision to soften relations with Cuba is part of a longstanding tradition of American leaders to try to make amends with former foes. President Richard Nixon did it with China, Nixon said, just as President Bill Clinton did with Vietnam.

“Today, trade with Vietnam and China are the norm, and soon it will be the same with Cuba,” he said. “We’ve been presented with a historic opportunity, one which we won’t let pass by.”

While Nixon was quick to cite human rights as a separate issue and defined his mission as singularly focused on agriculture, Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said the bigger picture there cannot be forgotten.

“Sen. Roy Blunt believes it is not in the best interest in the United States,” Richard said. But, he added, “trade is good for agriculture, and agriculture is pretty important to Missouri. Let’s see what’s involved with the human rights component.”

In a statement last month, Blunt said he opposed Obama’s effort to normalize relations with Cuba, a nation still led by the Castro family.

“I believe it is a mistake,” the Republican said. “It’s hard — if not impossible — to normalize relations with a Castro-led Cuba.”

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, is taking an alternative approach. She plans to travel to Cuba next month to assess the opportunities for more American trade.

At the Farm Bureau, Nixon was joined by the state’s leading commodity organizations, including representatives of pork and beef farmers, corn and soybean growers, and the state’s rice industry.

Gary Marshall, executive director of the Missouri Corn Growers Association, said the Cuban corn market, if opened up to American exporters, would become his industry’s 12th largest market, and “it is even more significant if we can send our beef, poultry and eggs.”

State Rep. Bill Reiboldt, R-Neosho and chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, attended Thursday’s meeting with Nixon. He said he appreciated Nixon’s point about letting the federal government focus on the diplomatic component while Missouri focuses on agricultural trade.

‘When they get those differences figured out, then the states can take over and open trade directly with Cuba,’ he said. ‘Today, they have to go through a third party. It is very important that when we deal directly with Cuba that we make sure they pay for our goods and services — that’s what you call trade.’

Gary Marshall, executive director of the Missouri Corn Growers Association, said he went Vietnam in 1995 when President Bill Clinton softened relations with that country. “It’s amazing what we started in 1995,” he said, “in a country very similarly at that point to where Cuba is today.”

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