- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 29, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas is well-positioned to be a top trading partner with Cuba as the United States’ embargo eases, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said as he visited the country Tuesday, but cautioned that taking advantage of that opportunity will take patience.

The Republican, who is the first governor to visit Cuba since the U.S. re-opened its embassy there in July, said he hoped to put Arkansas at the front of the line for trade if restrictions continue to ease.

“This has been for 55 years an embargoed and sanctioned country. It does not change overnight,” Hutchinson told reporters by telephone from Havana, which he is visiting with a delegation of nearly 50 people from the state. “We have to be patient with it. It is such an amazing market opportunity.”

Hutchinson supported the embargo in Congress and later enforced it as undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He said he now supports gradually reducing the embargo’s restrictions over time.

The first one Hutchinson said he wants to see eased is the limit on financing that requires cash-based sales up front for exports to the country. That restriction, Hutchinson and other state officials have said, has limited the state’s agricultural producers from being able to send products such as rice and poultry to Cuba.

“The first step in my judgment is to authorize credit sales to Cuba, and that would open up doors of opportunity for Arkansas products,” Hutchinson said. “Secondly, we need to have a number of steps taken by the Cuban government in terms of economic reform that are compatible with the new dynamics of trade opportunities and future with the United States.”

The delegation for the trip includes officials from several Arkansas-based companies, including Tyson Foods and Riceland Foods. Hutchinson said the Little Rock-based American Taekwondo Association has also expressed interest in holding a convention in Cuba.

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.

Hutchinson is scheduled to return to Arkansas late Wednesday.


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