The argument continues for the U.S. to lift trade and travel restrictions with Cuba. State ag departments as well as U.S. companies continue to make treks to the Caribbean island nation in search of trade.

In one of the latest trips, North Carolina Ag Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps led a delegation of eight in-state companies. The group attended a private state dinner hosted by Cuban President Fidel Castro prior to the opening of the first U.S. Food and Agribusiness Exhibition in Havana.

“This was an unexpected honor,” Phipps says. “We had several important meetings with senior officials of the Cuban government to discuss agricultural trade issues between our state and Cuba.”

During the state dinner, Castro regaled the North Carolina visitors with stories about when he was in the mountains prior to his coming to power to what the Cuban educational system is like. “He's a grandfather-type figure,” says Billy Carter, executive vice president of the North Carolina Cotton Producers Association.

“Castro was amazing,” Phipps says. “He's very witty, personable, approachable and very intelligent. He's very passionate about his country and the people of Cuba. It was clear throughout our visit that they did revere him as their leader.”

Phipps says Cuba, with a population of more than 11 million, represents a large, emerging market for North Carolina agriculture. It was reported that the 288 companies that exhibited at the Food and Agribusiness Exhibition sold some $100 million in products to the island nation. Carolina Turkey sold a million pounds of turkey during the visit, the commissioner says. C.L. Henderson Produce signed contracts selling apples. P.S. International, a food brokerage firm, sold a million dollars of various products that included commodities from North Carolina companies. Cuba has expressed interest in North Carolina poultry products, produce, forest products, raw cotton and other commodities.

Charles Green, NCDA international marketing specialist, was instrumental in setting up meetings between North Carolina and Cuban officials.

“We've committed to President Castro and his leadership to do everything possible in North Carolina to support lifting trade and travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba,” Phipps says.

While the potential exists, the reality is Cuba remains economically stressed. “Cuba is potentially a beautiful country,” said Billy Carter, executive vice president of the North Carolina Cotton Producers Association, who made the trip to Cuba at the invitation of the NCDA's international marketing department.

“You can read about what it's like in a Communist country, but seeing it first hand makes it even more real,” Carter says.

Carter does believe there's a case to be made for trading with Cuba. “We ought to be trading with Cuba,” he says. “I understand our government's problem with them, but one of the arguments they made was, ‘The U.S. is currently doing business with Cambodia, Vietnam, and China which are nations the U.S. certainly has had differences with.”

“That's certainly an argument that's difficult to respond to,” Carter says. “Currently, Cuba is doing several billion dollars worth of business with Canada. I really think Cuba is seeking to normalize travel between the two countries in order to tap into U.S. tourism income.”

Prior to going to Cuba, Carter had been led to believe that the nation was a 60,000-bale-per-year market. “Based on the state textile and import people we met with, Cuba is in the neighborhood of an 8,000-bale market. It would be nice to sell to them.”

Phipps says the North Carolina cotton group has plans to either go to Cuba or entertain textile groups from Cuba in the future. “Because of our trip to Cuba, many companies are interested in going.”

Phipps believes trade and travel restrictions will be lifted. Currently, U.S. companies can do business with Cuba on a cash basis. “Cubans are allowed to trade and travel with other countries. It just makes sense for us to be part of that.”