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Mississippi companies await fallout from Trump position on Cuban trade

By JACK WEATHERLY

A number of Mississippi companies and investors are interested in doing business in Cuba.

President Donald Trump is not so keen on trade with the communist nation – much less, it seems, than his immediate predecessor.

The Mississippi Development Authority led a group to Cuba in February.

Rose Boxx, director of the MDA’s International Trade Division, told the Mississippi Business Journal in March that “we speak and meet one-on-one-regularly with companies interested in Cuba.”

“We are also in regular communication with our trade contacts at the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. in order to stay informed and continue to enhance Mississippi’s trade with Cuba.”

Now the state’s lead economic development agency is taking a wait-and-see approach.

Efforts by the MBJ to talk with Boxx or anyone else at the MDA for this article were unsuccessful.

Agency spokesman Jeff Rent said in an email that “the president’s position on trade with Cuba is a matter for lawmakers in Washington, D.C.”

Trump had harsh words for the Cuban regime on Friday as he vowed to undo steps taken by his White House predecessor to normalize relations between the two countries.

In his speech in Miami he called for an end to “the long reign of suffering” under the communist regime established after the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro, who died last year. His brother, Raul, is currently president.

The details of the policy Trump laid down in his directive will be worked out over the next month by his cabinet.

Trump stated in the policy memorandum that he “will seek to promote a stable, prosperous and free country for the Cuban people and away from a regime that has failed to meet the most basic requirements of a free and just society.”

The policy calls for ending “economic practices that disproportionately benefit the Cuban government or its military, intelligence or security agencies.”

Free-ranging travel in the island nation 90 miles off the shore of Florida will be scrapped.

Trump said in a speech in Miami on Friday that “easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people. They only help the Cuban regime.”

An analysis of the 11-page document by The Wall Street Journal cites two legal experts who suggest that while “it will be limited in its effects for companies . . . . [Trump’s policy] could present challenges for U.S. companies considering new business on the island.”

Michael Casey, an attorney and foreign trade expert, was quoted as saying that “those seeking new business should expect it to be more challenging.”

Harry Clark, also an attorney with expertise in such matters, isn’t so sure that the policy changes will have much effect on companies. “It wasn’t U.S. policy, event under [President] Obama, to allow U.S. companies to engage in Cuba in ways that involved the Cuban military or Cuban security services. It may have happened, but it wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Clark said there was “exaggeration on both sides” as to the extent of liberalization under Obama and of the rollback announced by Trump.

Some aspects of relations with Cuba haven’t changed. Agricultural products have been exempted from the embargo for many years.

So the Thomasson Co. of Philadelphia, after visiting Cuba on the MDA-sponsored trip, is preparing to offer a bid on selling wooden poles to the state-owned utility, Thomasson President Brent Gray said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“Unless there’s some political bad blood, I don’t see an issue” with doing business in Cuba, Gray said.

The company has done business in Central and South America and in the Philippines, he said.

“Cuba needs infrastructure, if it ever opens up,” Gray said.

The embargo still requires cash-only deals with Cuba. Gray said the Cubans would like to see credit insurance available through the U.S. Export-Import Bank to facilitate trade, which is something that’s not on the table.

“The economy is still tough down there,” Gray said.

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