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Cuba Legislation Could Help Gulf Economies Rebound from Oil Spill

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About two weeks ago there was an explosion aboard BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig, tragically killing at least 11 rig-workers and eventually triggering a pipe-break that’s now spewing an estimated 5,000 barrels into the Gulf of Mexico daily. As the oil slick has spread from its epicenter 50 or so miles off the coast of Louisiana to the Gulf state’s shores, so have concerns that the disaster could severely harm the livelihoods of individuals–fishermen, for instance–and industries who depend on the vibrant, wildlife-rich ecosystem.

Doing everything possible to stop or better contain the ongoing leak and to protect the Gulf of Mexico from further environmental degradation, which would severely impair the Gulf economy, must be among the most urgent priorities for BP and government at all levels. Economic and environmental recovery, however, are long-term endeavors that will require substantial investments of money, labor, and other resources from both the private and public sectors. Hopefully many Gulf residents will find jobs as part of the recovery effort, but what else can be done in the near term to help them get back to work?

Congresspersons from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and other vulnerable states would do well to consider supporting H.R. 4645, a bill pending in the House Agriculture Committee that would, by opening U.S. citizens’ travel to Cuba and cutting through the red tape that U.S. agricultural and commodity groups must presently jump through to sell food to the island, create hundreds of jobs and millions in economic activity in the Gulf region alone.

Just to give readers an idea of the kinds of gains we’re talking about, let’s look at Louisiana. According to a recent estimate* by researchers at Texas A&M University, H.R. 4645 would boost the export of ag goods from the Bayou State to Cuba by some $10 million, generate $7 million in “related business activity,” and provide nearly 200 jobs to Louisianans in crisis. The Louisiana rice industry would benefit the most, seeing its sales to one of the state’s most accessible foreign markets grow by upwards of $8 million. Increasing ag sales to Cuba isn’t for farmers akin to the advent of irrigation or transnational shipping, but in light of the oil spill and gloomy economic forecast, it could be the difference between foreclosing on a home and keeping it for so many families in Louisiana and other Gulf states.

The bill before the Ag Committee, however, is about more than ag sales–it’s also about the long-overdue restoration of U.S. citizens right to travel to Cuba and exchange with its people. And ag sales and travel are more interrelated than they may appear at first glance. Again, Texas A&M has the numbers: “…as Cuban tourism earnings [due to travel by Europeans, Latin Americans, and others] increased by twenty eight percent from 2003 to 2008, U.S. exports grew by 181 percent. As Cuba’s earnings from tourism declined 11 percent in 2009, U.S. exports fell by 25 percent.” So there you have it: more people on the island means the Cuban government has more mouths to feed. It’s common sense, really.

This tragedy has also brought to the fore other possibilities for greater U.S.-Cuban engagement. Our colleagues at the New America Foundation and the Lexington Institute have raised questions about the United States’ ability to respond to an oil spill in the Cuba-controlled portion of the Gulf of Mexico. As New America’s Anya Landau French put it, “The Deepwater Horizon disaster underscores the need to be talking to Cuba about protecting our shared environment.” Leaving aside the merits of Cuba’s interest in offshore drilling, not talking to the Cubans on this issue now means that United States, if not courting disaster, is nonetheless wholly unprepared to deal with one that could affect both countries.

With the economic and foreign policy benefits so clear, one would think Congress wouldn’t continue to drag its feet on passing H.R. 4645, a first step in engaging with Havana more closely and often on a range of mutual interests. Members of Congress who hail from the Gulf region could help pull many of their Ag Committee colleagues off the fence by joining the bill and strongly campaigning for it. Perhaps they could even hold a joint press conference on the Capitol’s steps, an ideal moment to ask defenders of the status quo in Congress why they’re so desperate to continue denying U.S. citizens their rights and farmers, travel businesses, and others throughout the country an opportunity, in a time of economic hardship, to obtain the security that comes with making a respectable living. Wishful thinking? We’ll find out soon.

*Estimates on potential sales to Cuba by Louisiana fisheries must be revised in light of the oil spill.