Since 1959, the nation of Cuba has been ruled by the brothers Fidel and Raul Castro, a pair of communist thugs who nationalized that country’s industries and used violence and terror to silence political opponents. I vividly remember my first visit to Cuba nearly ten years ago. In a country where private ownership of property was illegal, the poverty was stark and omnipresent. If a person were loitering on the side of the road, government law mandated that any passing driver offer the loiterer a ride, since “the people” owned the automobile.
On that trip a decade ago, I recall hearing a four-hour speech by Castro in which he touted Cuba’s “leadership” in the area of health and medicine, but when I looked into the eyes of the Cuban people on the streets of Havana, I could see their hopelessness and desperation. I listened to that propaganda-filled speech and wondered when the country of over eleven million people would have an opportunity to live and thrive as a free people.
I believe Fidel Castro’s death on November 25th marks a unique opportunity for the U.S., and Alabama in particular, to influence the economic and political future of Cuba, a nation located a mere ninety miles off the coast of Florida. Raul Castro serves as president, but is 85-years old and has pledged to not seek re-election in 2018. The end of the Castro regime is imminent, and now is the time for the United States to strengthen its cultural and economic ties with the Cuban people, as they slowly gain political freedom.
This past November, I visited the country again as a member of “Engage Cuba”, an organization dedicated to improving Cuban-American relations by ending the embargo the U.S. government has had in place on trade between the two countries for the past fifty-five years. If the embargo’s aim has been to achieve democratization in Cuba, then the embargo has clearly failed.
But now, with Fidel’s death and a new president set to replace Raul in 2018, American policymakers have a tremendous opening to put pressure on the remnants of the Castro regime by allowing American companies to do business in Cuba.
My recent visit allowed me see first-hand the economic opportunities for American businesses, and especially for those located in Alabama. As Cuba slowly comes out from the shadow of the Castro regime and moves toward a market-based economy, the opportunities for enterprising Alabama businesses and farmers to provide goods and services to the Cuban people are nearly endless.
For example, a report from Engage Cuba and the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba observes that Cuba imported $78 million worth of poultry in 2014. Among the American states, Alabama is the second-largest poultry exporter, shipping out $478 million worth of broiler meat in 2015. Yet the Congressional embargo severely limits the ability of Alabama companies to access the Cuban market for poultry.
As Cuba modernizes its infrastructure, the country will also desperately need the affordable timber that Alabama’s $21 billion forestry industry can supply. With Mobile’s port only 628 miles away from Havana, even geographically, Alabama is well-positioned to lead economic engagement with Cuba.
I am convinced that opening political and economic relations with Cuba is the right course of action both for the United States and for the Cuban people, who have lived under a political dictatorship for over five decades. Congress’s embargo policy has not worked. A new, forward-looking strategy of engagement is necessary. For Alabama, this represents a unique opportunity: we have the products, the port, and the willingness to be a leading trading partner with Cuba in the 21st century.
Gerald Dial represents District 13 in the Alabama Senate, which includes all or parts of Randolph, Lee, Cleburne, Clay, Cherokee, and Chambers counties. He serves as Chairman of the Senate Health & Human Services Committee.