Texas, Gateway to Havana?

Before Perry opposed Cuban thaw, his ag commissioner called for it

Gov. Rick Perry: Not a fan of Havana
Gov. Rick Perry: Not a fan of Havana (Photo by John Anderson)

Gov. Rick Perry has lambasted Pres. Barack Obama's plan to soften and potentially normalize US relations with Cuba. But it wasn't that long ago that his administration was pleading with Obama not just to thaw relations with the island nation, but to have Texas become the first port of call for visiting Cubans.

Under the new agreement, the US will ease some travel and banking restrictions, while Cuba will allow increased Internet access to its citizens. Most significantly, the Castro administration will release 53 political prisoners, and has returned US contractor Alan P. Gross, who was imprisoned over claims that he imported high-tech satellite phone equipment.

Republicans have split on this issue, with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul supporting the thaw, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio opposing it. Perry has seemingly sided with Rubio, saying that, while he is glad Gross has been released, he is "really concerned about a pattern this administration has exhibited of making deals that aren’t necessarily good for America."

But there are those within Texas - in fact, at least one statewide elected official within Perry's camp - who have been very high on the potential for US-Cuba relations.

A quick history lesson:The US trade embargo of Cuba goes back to 1960, under President Dwight D. Eisenhower (and not, as is commonly thought, his successor John F. Kennedy). However, it is far from a complete blockade: In 2000, Congress passed the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act, allowing limited agricultural and medical trade with Cuba. End result: between 2001 and 2013, US exports to Cuba totaled $4.7 billion, mostly in food purchases, and a portion of that has gone to Texas farmers and businesses.

However, they face stiff competition from both Cuba's South and Central American neighbors, and the People's Republic of China. So, in June 2008, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples lead a trade delegation, intended to increase that number. Along with representatives of the Texas Farm Bureau (an organization that has historically supported ending the trade embargo), he visited Cuban administrator, with an eye to selling more Texas exports. At the time, he said, "Cuba needs good quality agricultural products. Texas farmers and ranchers produce the best food in the world. It just makes sense for our state to help feed the Cuban people."

It seems that's Perry's ag commissioner liked what he saw there. The delegation came back with new signed deals for around $1 million's worth of cotton. However, Staples was still concerned that Texas' farmers were getting too small a slice of the pie going to other American growers. Less than a year later, he sent a letter to the Obama administration, asking that a Texas-Havana flight be established. Staples said, "What we need to see is direct air service from Texas to Cuba. Right now the only states that have the permission to have those kind of flights are Florida, California and New York. I think we should also ease travel restrictions for Cubans seeking to do business with Texans."

So when Perry told the San Antonio Express News this week that "negotiating with countries that have huge human rights problems is not necessarily in our best interests," one can only wonder what he said to Staples in 2008 when he did some negotiating of his own.

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Rick Perry, Todd Staples, Barack Obama, Cuba

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