Washington exported $41,000 worth of goods to Cuba last year.
For a trade-dependent state, that’s infinitesimal. Even at its peak in 2007, when cherry shipments lifted the sales total to $427,000, Cuba was a niche market. The Caribbean nation became an afterthought when farm commodity prices soared and marginal markets fell off the radar screen.
With export markets remaining strong, a stampede by agricultural interests back to the Caribbean is unlikely, but news that Ambassadors Group has received a license to renew educational travel programs to Cuba should help reconnect Washington with an island that has perplexed Americans since at least the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in 1898.
The Spokane company ran tours into Cuba during the 1990s but lost its license to do so under the administration of President George W. Bush. The federal government, goaded by Cuban émigrés in Florida, still discourages tourism. The recent stop by Beyoncé and Jay-Z was sugar for talk radio. Sen. Marco Rubio, among those angling for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, legitimately criticized the couple for ignoring Castro administration human rights abuses while leaving behind precious U.S. dollars.
Well, if the United States wants those dollars back, how about selling them something?
Former Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., in 2000 negotiated breakthrough legislation that opened Cuba to U.S. exporters, but only if they had cash buyers. No one has been permitted to extend credit for purchases from Cuba, which has focused most of its buying on Southern states peddling corn and meat.
Total exports in 2012 were $465 million.
Sometimes the distortions wrought by the U.S. embargo are almost comical.
Cuba last year initiated deepwater exploration for oil. The Spanish company that leased the offshore tracts worked with an Italian operator that had to have a drilling platform suitable for the task built in China. Any number of companies on the U.S. side of the Gulf of Mexico could have had that contract.
Little oil was found, but U.S. firms lost business.
Besides Nethercutt, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell have advocated more expansive trade relations; Otter on four trips that, despite his efforts, have produced relatively little business for Idaho companies.
But opportunities exist there for Inland Northwest producers of fruit, lentils and wheat if credit prohibitions can be lifted.
Meanwhile, Ambassadors, which has conducted tours of countries opposed to U.S. policy going back to the Cold War era, can broaden the educational and cultural understanding that usually reduces antagonisms. The day is not too far off when the Castro brothers will be gone and the U.S. might be able to reset relations with Cuba.
Thanks to Ambassadors, Nethercutt, Otter and Cantwell, the Northwest may have a reservoir of good will it can draw on when that day comes. Surely, we can do better than $41,000.