Updated Cuba policy could spell out big money for Ark. rice growers

President Obama's call for open travel and commercial opportunities between Cuba and the U.S. is being met with criticism by some and excitement by others here at home. The move more than 50 years in the making is welcome news for Arkansas rice growers who would like to reunite with their once largest customer.

On Wednesday, President Obama announced an update to the U.S. Cuba policy, including the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries - including travel and commercial trade.

Pre-embargo back in 1961, Cuba was the number one market for U.S. rice exports, and Arkansas rice growers would like to see that be the case again.

"From what we know, we have an opportunity to reestablish some commercial trade that's been away for much too long," said Ben Noble, executive director of the Arkansas Rice Federation.

Noble admits the announcement made on Wednesday doesn't include many details surrounding potential trade with the communist nation, but he remains optimistic.

For years Arkansas has pushed for the easing of trade restrictions on Cuba. In a letter penned by Governor Mike Beebe to the National Governor's Association back in 2009, he stressed how big open rice and poultry trade with Cuba could be for the Natural State.

"Arkansas is uniquely situated to provide products that Cuba's people need. Cuba currently imports most of its rice from Vietnam. Given our proximity to Cuba, however, we could ship products there in less time and send goods on smaller ships, allowing access to a greater number of ports around the country, not just the capital, Havana." - Gov. Mike Beebe

State rice producers were able to conduct rice trade with Cuba after 2000, when trade restrictions were lifted to allow for "cash in advance" purchases. Noble said "cash in advance" hurts a commodity like rice, and in 2005 harder trade restrictions were put in place on Cuba. Noble mentioned after 2005, rice trade from the US to Cuba was nearly non-existant.

"Certainly any amount of increased trading opportunities will be of benefit to this state," commented Noble.

Estimates suggest the United States on a whole could see exports of rice to Cuba valued at over $200 million. With that much money on the line, trade mission trips are already being lined up.

"The state chamber already had plans to go to Cuba in the summer with this type of focus," said Noble. "I would expect that the announcement [Wednesday] will increase the attention on that trip and probably the interest in participation."

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