- Associated Press - Saturday, September 26, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - As a congressman, Asa Hutchinson supported the United States’ trade embargo with Cuba and later enforced it as a member of former President George W. Bush’s administration. The Republican governor of Arkansas is now trying to position his state to be ready amid growing signs the 54-year-old embargo may be nearing its end.

Hutchinson this week will be the first governor to travel to Cuba since the former Cold War foes reopened embassies in their respective countries in July. With the visit, he’s trying to make the state the first in the door - literally and symbolically - to take advantage of the new relationship between the countries.

“There’s going to be a lessening of the embargo down the road, and my objective is to position Arkansas as the leading state for trade with Cuba,” Hutchinson told The Associated Press in an interview last week.

Hutchinson isn’t the first Arkansas governor to visit Cuba. His predecessor, Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe, traveled to Cuba as part of a trade mission in 2009. But the timing of the trip, coming after the embassies’ reopening and as the Obama administration has chipped away at the trade and travel restrictions, is raising hope among business leaders about a new market for Arkansas.

Having an Arkansas governor be the first to walk into the re-opened embassy “is a strong signal to Cuba that Arkansas is ready to build trade opportunities with Cuba and exchange those trade opportunities in all sectors,” said Dan Hendrix, president and chief executive officer of World Trade Center Arkansas, which is organizing the trip.

Hutchinson, who enforced the embargo as Homeland Security undersecretary, admits his perspective on trade with Cuba has changed over the years. Stopping short of calling for an outright end to the embargo, he said he supports gradually ending some of the trade restrictions between the two countries over time.

“If Cuba responds to the lessening of economic sanctions by enhancing their freedoms and limiting or reducing political oppression and violation of rights in that country, then we should take it a step further and look at continued lessening of the embargo,” he said.

The first step Hutchinson and other state officials are pushing for is ending a financing restriction that they say hampers Arkansas from exporting more of its agricultural products to Cuba. Currently, the state’s agricultural producers would have to receive payment from Cuba before exporting anything to the country.

Arkansas has had limited trade with Cuba under the embargo, and the amount has wildly fluctuated in recent years. The state last year exported more than $4.4 million in products, all of which were herbicides, according to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

State Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward said Arkansas’ rice industry would be the biggest beneficiary of easing restrictions, pointing to a University of Arkansas researcher’s study estimating the state could export more than $29 million in grains if the financing and travel restrictions were eliminated.

“Developing those relationships, we will be able to talk through some of these issues,” Ward said.

The state’s poultry, pork and several other agricultural sectors would also benefit by easing those restrictions under the embargo, Ward said.

Measuring the success of the trip may be difficult to immediately judge, especially since only Congress can end the embargo with Cuba. Hutchinson said he wants Arkansas to have chance at influencing what happens next.

“The fact remains is it’s going to change in the future, Cuba is, and we have an opportunity to shape it in the direction of more freedoms and strong ties to the United States,” Hutchinson said.


Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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