Restoring Cuban Restrictions Would Hurt Northwest Travel, Trade

Obama-era relaxation of travel restrictions to Cuba has been greeted with a flood of tourists to Havana, including on flights from the Northwest on Seattle-based Alaska Airlines. Restoring trade and travel restrictions could hurt tourism and maybe blunt emerging markets in Cuba for Northwest speciality agricultural products such as hazelnuts, wine and craft beer.

Obama-era relaxation of travel restrictions to Cuba has been greeted with a flood of tourists to Havana, including on flights from the Northwest on Seattle-based Alaska Airlines. Restoring trade and travel restrictions could hurt tourism and maybe blunt emerging markets in Cuba for Northwest speciality agricultural products such as hazelnuts, wine and craft beer.

President Trump heads to Miami later this week to announce he is restoring restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba. The move will please anti-Castro Cuban emigres who live in South Florida, but what does it mean for everybody else, including people who live in Washington and Oregon? Apparently a lot more than Cuban cigars and rum.

First off, reversing Obama-era relaxation of Cuban travel and trade restrictions doesn’t appear to be broadly popular throughout the country. Morning Consult, a DC-based non-partisan survey research firm, released fresh public opinion polling results this week showing 65 percent of American voters – and six in 10 Republican voters – favor continuing engagement with Cuba.

A group called Engage Cuba, which commissioned the poll, also released a report earlier this month that claims restoring some or all pre-Obama Cuban trade and travel restrictions could cost the US economy $6.6 billion and affect more than 12,000 American jobs. It also could make it harder for Cuban-Americans to visit relatives in Cuba

Last year, Miguel Fraga, first secretary of the Embassy of Cuba, visited Seattle and said loosened restrictions would make it easier for Americans to visit Cuba. In step with what has been a sharp rise in US tourism in Cuba, Seattle-based Alaska Airlines was among seven US air carriers to apply for rights to fly to Havana. The airline made its inaugural flight – the first from the West Coast – on January 5 starting in Seattle and flying to Havana from Los Angeles. Alaska also has a connecting flight out of Portland.

Earlier this year, Bruce Pokarney of the Oregon Department of Agriculture pointed to Cuba as a potential new market for Oregon specialty products such as hazelnuts, wine, craft beer, blueberries, apples pears, cherries and beef. The Salem Statesman Journal pointed out up to 80 percent of the food consumed by Cubans is imported. Before trade restrictions were relaxed by President Obama, the United States were already the leading agricultural products exporter to Cuba, with $300 million in exports in 2014 and $658 million in 2008.

The European Union and Canada are the largest exporters of wheat to Cuba. The United States has not shipped any wheat to Cuba since 2011, according to the Statesman-Journal.

“Obviously our top market is Asia,” Pokarney told the Statesman-Journal. “But we are always open to looking at new markets. It’s a situation where we want to maintain existing markets and find new ones.”

While foreign policy experts note Cuba has not pardoned political prisoners, permitted labor unions or condoned political activities, trade experts contend the 50-year-old US trade embargo of Cuba has proven ineffective in influencing Cuba’s human rights policies. Trade experts also say small American businesses are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of more open trade with Cuba, which could boost exports in specialty products by more than $1 billion per year.

The rationale for maintaining or restoring a trade embargo and travel restrictions has more to do with politics, since Cuba long ago ceased to be a national security risk to the United States. A bipartisan majority of Americans seem to think it is a good idea to turn the page and re-engage with a nearby Caribbean neighbor. From the looks of Facebook posts of Washingtonians and Oregonians who have taken selfies while in Havana, it seems like the Northwest shares that view – and could share in some of the economic rewards of expanding engagement.