Gov. Greg Abbott assured Cuban officials Tuesday that he wanted close economic ties between Texas and Cuba whether or not the U.S. embargo is lifted, but with an eye toward getting a jump-start on an even more mutually profitable relationship if and when that day comes.
“We appreciate the way we have been received, and we look forward to mañana with that being a double entendre,” Abbott told the leadership of CIMEX, the Cuban Export-Import Corp., the nation’s largest commercial corporation, which Abbott likened to Texas in its size, scope and growth.
But with Texas in the CIMEX mix, Abbott said, “We can grow that mas grande.”
And, in successive meetings with CIMEX and the Tourism Ministry, Abbott, joined by members of a small Texas trade delegation he brought with him to Cuba, sought to seal the deal — and his good intentions — with the presentation of an autographed Nolan Ryan baseball. (He brought a dozen on the trip.)
“Yo tengo un baseball. It’s signed by Nolan Ryan who is an All-Star, one of the best players, and he’s also a Texan. He asked me to give this to you as a sign of friendship,” Abbott told Alexis Trujillo Morejón, the first deputy minister of tourism, who was seated across the large conference room table from him. “Can you catch?”
“This is the beginning of what we hope will be a very productive relationship,” Abbott said.
“One thing I can say is that Texas has a business point of view for travel and tourism to Cuba,” Abbott said. “From a Texas perspective, we view Cuba as a place of vast tourism and travel opportunities.”
“Texas would really like to expand travel and tourism with Cuba,” Abbott said. “If you could name one thing to speed up or aid that process, what would that be?”
“The lifting of the blockade,” replied Trujillo Morejón.
“I say, `Not my job,’” Abbott said. “The ability for states to affect the embargo is very limited.”
But Saba Abashawl, chief external affairs officer for the Houston Airport System, said, “The governor of Texas is being modest,” noting that his presence in Havana seeking closer relations with Cuba, “sends a very strong message to Washington.”
Abbott smiled and nodded.
While Abbott hasn’t directly called for an end to the embargo, his conversations with Cubans have been sympathetic. Duly noting that the future of the embargo rests with Washington, he said, “While we are waiting for that decision from the federal government, Texas wants to begin the process of building relationships with business leaders like CIMEX so that we will be well prepared to act swiftly to the mutual benefit of CIMEX and Texas.”
Earlier in the day, after a tour of Cuba’s showpiece Mariel Special Development Zone, Abbott asked whether a U.S. company could legally invest in the port.
No, he was told in an answer that didn’t really require translation. The blockade won’t allow it, officials said.
“Are there any such businesses from the United States at this time” seeking to invest there? Abbott asked.
Officials told him there is one proposal pending. It is from an Alabama company – Cleber LLC – which is seeking to use some loopholes in the embargo to build a small assembly plant in the economic zone to make tractors in Cuba – taking advantage of the exemption for agricultural products. It would also sell them in Cuba but, again exploiting the fine print of the embargo, would sell not to the state but to nongovernment cooperative farms.
The Cubans are waiting to see if federal officials in Washington agree that the plan doesn’t run afoul of the embargo and can be licensed.
Abbott said that Texas had plenty of products, including fine quality, long-grain rice, to sell to the market in Cuba, where the government is obliged to provide each of its 11 million people at least 7 pounds of rice every month.
“Texas has an abundance of (rice and other products), and a very easy ability to export from Texas to Cuba,” Abbott said.
But Ana Teresa Igarza Martínez, general director of the development zone, said that, “due to the blockade restrictions and the economic situation of the country, that is no secret,” Cuba simply can’t afford to pay in cash for U.S. rice when it can buy rice from other, albeit far more distant places, chiefly Vietnam, because of their extended credit terms.
“The price is not as difficult as having to pay in cash,” she said.
The U.S. government placed a partial trade embargo on Cuba in 1960 and a full embargo in 1962. However, legislation in 2000 allowed for the export of agricultural, food and medical products to Cuba on a cash-in-advance basis.
“The last two days we’ve been leaving a lot of cash in Cuba,” Abbott said of his entourage.
Indeed, the answer for Cuba’s cash crunch would appear to be foreign visitors. Igarza Martínez said Cuba would be approaching 4 million visitors this year – nearly twice as many as last year – and on a trajectory toward 10 million tourists in the foreseeable future
Over the next 10 years, Cuba is expecting to add about 80,000 hotel rooms.
If so, Abbott said, “You will need American products your visitors are accustomed to.”
“Rumor has it that tourists prefer American rice,” Abbott said.
To which Igarza Martínez said something to the effect that “the American tourist is a tourist of selectivity.”
American-Statesman chief political writer Jonathan Tilove is the only Texas-based reporter covering Gov. Greg Abbott’s historic trip to Cuba.