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New Idaho group calls for an end to travel and trade bans on Cuba

An array of Idaho state and business leaders launched the Engage Cuba Idaho State Council on Thursday, following the lead of 10 other states pushing for Congress to end the travel and trade ban on Cuba.

Gov. Butch Otter, who led a state trade mission to Cuba in 2007, is chairing the new council.

“I’ve long been a supporter of opening up trade and other relationships with Cuba, even if our governments are unable to come to some bigger accommodation,” Otter said in a statement. “My travels to Cuba convince me that the people there have the same goals, the same ambitions and the same needs as we do here in Idaho. We both want more freedom; we both want more self-determination; and we both want fewer restrictions on our ability to participate in the global marketplace of goods and ideas.”

According to the U.S. Embassy in Havana, tourist travel to Cuba still is prohibited, but there are a dozen categories of authorized travel including family visits, journalistic activity, humanitarian projects, professional research and others. It’s not easy for Americans to travel in Cuba; U.S. credit and debit cards can’t be used, so travelers have to bring cash.

The council wants to open up both travel and trade. “Idaho farmers, dairymen and businesses are stuck on the sidelines as our foreign competitors continue to take advantage of Cuba’s growing markets,” said James Williams, president of the Engage Cuba Coalition in Washington, D.C., and a former staffer for John Kerry’s presidential campaign. “Opening up trade with Cuba would provide tremendous opportunities for Idaho’s agriculture and manufacturing sectors and support Cuba’s growing private sector.”

Otter has long been an advocate of trade with Cuba; prior to leading the 2007 state trade mission, he’d visited the island nation three times on lobbyist-funded trips as an Idaho congressman. Otter said he and then-Cuban President Fidel Castro “struck a respectful friendship,” and Otter tells stories of Castro referring to Otter as “my cowboy friend.”

The Engage Cuba effort is a bipartisan one, and it includes a representative of the Idaho Potato Commission and the Idaho agricultural director.

Ivan Castillo, chairman of the Idaho Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said, “Restricting American freedom and business has not brought about the democratic change in Cuba that we hoped it would. By ending the embargo with Cuba, we hope to expand export opportunities here in Idaho, while also benefiting Cuba’s growing private sector.”

The embargo on travel to Cuba has been in place for 55 years.

Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary, said Otter will urge Idaho’s congressional delegation to lift the trade embargo. “If he hasn’t (already), I’m sure he will,” Hanian said.