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    Alabama has a proud, rich history with Cuba, we should capitalize on it

    Alabama has a proud, rich history with Cuba, we should capitalize on it
    Print Email By John Hammontree |
    on July 30, 2015 at 11:25 AM, updated July 30, 2015 at 1:25 PM

    No one would ever confuse us with communist sympathizers, but Alabama
    has a surprisingly strong relationship with Cuba. In fact, over the last
    several decades, Alabama has spearheaded efforts to reopen trade and
    deepen the US relationship with Cuba.

    As President Obama and the rest of the nation move to normalize trade
    relations with the communist country, Alabama introduced limited trade
    and developed education exchanges more than a decade ago. According to
    the Foreign Trade Division of the U.S. Census Bureau, Alabama shipped
    approximately $32.8 million worth of goods, all categorized as food
    products, to the island nation in 2014.

    With an American embassy re-opening in Havana and the potential for
    increased exports to the Caribbean, Alabama should do everything
    possible to reap the huge economic benefits that we have primed by
    establishing early trust with the Castro brothers and the Cuban government.

    Sister Cities

    Geographically speaking, Cuba is one of Alabama’s closest international
    neighbors. Less than 600 nautical miles from our ports, Havana shares a
    common history with Mobile. In 1993, the two cities officially became
    “Sister Cities,” the first official twinning between an American and
    Cuban city. However, the relationship between the two cities has spanned
    more than three centuries.

    In 1702, French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville founded the city of
    Mobile, the first capital of French Louisiana. The explorer quickly
    established trading routes from the new port city, including opening
    shipping lanes between Mobile and Havana. When d’Iberville died in
    Havana, a few years later, the two cities erected twin statues. If
    you’ve ever been to Mobile, you may have noticed the nine-foot monument
    to d’Iberville alongside the Mobile River. What you may not have known,
    however, is that d’Iberville’s eyes are directed toward Cuba and that a
    duplicate Cuban statue returns his gaze.

    Alabama is also directly responsible for a huge part of Cuban culture:

    In the early 1860s, Cuban-native Nemesio Guillo returned home to the
    island nation after completing his degree at Mobile’s Spring Hill
    College. At the time, it was common for Cuban students to further their
    studies in the United States and Alabama’s close proximity to the Cuban
    ports established it as a natural partner. In his return voyage from
    Mobile, Guillo packed a baseball bat and ball – he had learned the sport
    from American sailors based in the Alabama city – and effectively
    introduced the sport of baseball to the country. Popularity spread
    quickly and America’s pastime quickly also became a Cuban pastime.

    Alabama continued to have strong trading ties with Cuba until Fidel
    Castro’s communist revolution in the 1950s. In 1962, President Kennedy
    imposed a harsh trade embargo on Cuba, an ally of the Soviet Union.
    Quickly, the lucrative routes between Mobile and Havana shut down.

    Commissioner Ron Sparks opens trade avenues

    In 2000, President Clinton authorized the United States to amend its
    four-decades-old embargo on the communist-run country to allow the
    shipment of food, medicine and humanitarian aid.

    Given Alabama’s proximity to Cuba and our poultry and lumber industry,
    Ron Sparks, then the assistant commissioner of Agriculture and
    Industries, quickly recognized an economic opportunity. In 2002, Sparks
    was elected commissioner and set Alabama on a path to reopen relations
    between Alabama and the island nation.

    In 2003, Sparks met with the US Interests Section in Cuba – the
    alternative to the then-closed Cuban embassy. Sparks voiced his interest
    in reestablishing trade and says that he met with Cuban President Fidel
    Castro on five different occasions.

    “We were certainly one of the trendsetters going into Cuba”
    “He always treated me with respect,” Sparks said in an interview. “He
    was very cordial. Fidel Castro has the ability to talk for hours but he
    never once put me in an awkward situation. We discussed the benefit of
    trade to our port and our farmers.”

    Once trade was reopened, about 60% of country’s poultry and 90% of
    Cuba’s utility poles were being imported from Alabama, according to
    Sparks. That number has decreased as other states have gotten involved
    with Cuban trade, but in 2012 nearly a fourth of chickens entering Cuba
    came from Alabama.

    A friendly, respectful relationship developed and Sparks said that
    Cubans continue to have a very favorable view of Alabama. In the wake of
    Hurricane Katrina, Castro called Sparks and offered to send as many
    Cuban doctors as required to provide aid, but Sparks said the ongoing
    embargo prevented that from happening.

    “We were certainly one of the trendsetters going into Cuba,” Sparks
    said. “We carried an awful lot of industry into Cuba.”

    Sparks said that Alabama can’t rest on its laurels. Other states are
    scrambling to enter the newly opened market and Alabama’s share of the
    business could decrease over time. However, Sparks points out that
    states like Tennessee and Kentucky lack the easy access that the port of
    Mobile provides Alabama. While Florida is geographically closer, it has
    a more controversial relationship with Cuba due to their large refugee

    If travel restrictions are lifted, the economic opportunities for
    Alabama are even stronger. Sparks suggested that there could be cruise
    departures to Havana from Mobile and flights from Birmingham. There
    would also be the opportunity to manufacture and ship products to fuel
    the revival of the Cuban hospitality industry.

    “I do believe that the decisions the President has made are going to
    give Alabama an opportunity,” Sparks said.

    University of Alabama pioneers educational travel to Cuba

    The University of Alabama was also an early pioneer in reestablishing a
    connection between the United States and Cuba.

    According to Robert Olin, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, the
    school’s Center for Cuba Collaboration and Scholarship is one of the
    first of its kind in the country.

    “Harvard and North Carolina also have legitimate centers but both would
    tell you that the University of Alabama is head and shoulders above what
    they’re doing,” Olin said.

    Around the same time that Commissioner Sparks was re-establishing trade
    between Alabama and Cuba, Dean Olin was setting the stage for an
    academic exchange.

    “I arrived on campus in the fall of 2000, it amazed me in my first year
    how many faculty had ties with Cuba. There were lots of random acts of
    progress. I just attributed it to the water.”

    While the embargo restricted trade, educational licenses for travel were
    still attainable through the Treasury Department, but required mountains
    of paperwork. However, Olin and his team pressed through, with an
    inaugural team of twenty faculty members visiting the island in 2002.
    Since then, more than 150 faculty members have visited Cuba for
    educational purposes, and more than 40 Cubans have come to the
    University of Alabama.

    When the University first began interacting with Cuba, there were at
    least 40 other programs in the country that had Cuban exchange programs.
    However, during the George W. Bush administration, restrictions on
    interactions with Cuba became increasingly stringent until the number
    dwindled to four – Harvard, North Carolina, American University and
    Alabama. In recent years, programs have begun reappearing around the
    country but Alabama’s commitment to maintaining the program has set it

    “It was a real headache to get it done,” Olin said. “But several
    agencies recognized how diligent and supportive UA was committed to this
    activity. We still have great recognition across the island.”

    The school began sending students to study abroad in Cuba in 2009 and in
    2012, Dr. Gustavo Jose Cobreiro Suarez, the president of the University
    of Havana, presented a medallion and resolution to Dr. Olin recognizing
    the 10th anniversary of the project.

    Naturally, the cultural differences can, at times, prove a strain and
    Olin says that the “do talk about the difference in politics but we’re
    not zealots. We do it from a scholarship perspective.”

    Olin agrees that improving relations between the United States and Cuba
    could be great for Alabama and it looks like his counterparts at Auburn
    concur. They announced educational and cultural tours of Cuba for later
    this fall.

    Future economic opportunities for Alabama

    Alabama’s current political leaders appear to be on the fence. Senator
    Richard Shelby met with Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, in 2012 in
    negotiations over imprisoned American Alan Gross.

    Congressman Bradley Byrne, who represents the district containing
    Mobile, fears that Cuba may be a “staging ground against us for Russia.”
    He said in an earlier interview with “If Cuba would get that
    mindset, they truly would explode in growth, and we could benefit being
    a port for them. Right now, they don’t have any money…They’re not
    ready for us.”

    However, he recognizes that Mobile has a unique opportunity to be an
    “international city.” He also has pointed out that 558,000 Alabama jobs
    are supported by trade and more than 3,900 Alabama businesses exported
    goods or services in 2014.

    With a population of 11 million and an infrastructure and economy that
    has seen little progress since the 1950s, Cuba is brimming with
    untapped, economic potential. In addition to our thriving poultry
    exports, imagine modern cars manufactured in Alabama and shipped through
    Mobile; Internet infrastructure provided by Huntsville-based
    telecommunications companies; medical technology exports from
    Birmingham; lumber to provide telephone poles and other structural support.

    By all accounts, national trends indicate that a normalized relationship
    with Cuba is imminent. Alabama has built a solid foundation with Cuba
    and now should do everything it can to capitalize on it.

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