For the first time since the United States relaxed trade sanctions against Cuba two years ago, South Carolina is paying attention to the potential market that is less than 700 miles from our shores.
The S.C. Department of Commerce on Friday will hold a program on Cuban trade opportunities. But two members of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., will not be present as expected.
Conference organizers learned Wednesday that Cosme Torres Espinosa, deputy chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, and Cuban cultural attache Lourdes C. Bausse Webb will not be allowed to travel to South Carolina.
The pair had been expected in Charleston today and Columbia on Friday. But the U.S. State Department is restricting travel by Cuban diplomats outside Washington. The move is apparently in retaliation for a similar move in Havana against the U.S. Interests Section. The two countries have no formal diplomatic relations.
It is the second time that Cuban officials have been unable to come to South Carolina to promote trade.
A visit by a Cuban delegation in 2000 was canceled after two of the delegates were denied entry visas.
Torres Espinosa and Bausse Webb will participate from Washington in the half-day video conference at the S.C. Department of Commerce.
The conference and the aborted visit have come about largely through the efforts of the fledgling South Carolina-Cuba Association. The group, which is still organizing, believes that Cuba can become a significant economic market for S.C. goods and services. It also wants to establish cultural, educational and travel ties with the island nation, which has been mostly off-limits to American trade since Fidel Castro came to power.
South Carolina hasn’t taken advantage of the recent relaxation of the trade embargo, said Ben Gregg, head of Gregg Communications and one of the lead organizers.
Gregg went to Cuba in 2000 when U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., then chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, led a delegation seeking an end to the 40-year-old embargo. Clyburn was promoting Cuba as a market for S.C. agricultural products.
The U.S. passed an exception to the embargo in 2000, allowing U.S. sales of food and medicine to Cuba on a cash-only basis.
But S.C. has done little to capture the Cuban market. South Carolina did not have representation at an agricultural expo in Havana at the end of September. One S.C. company attended.
Gregg said he tried several times to have S.C. agriculture represented at the expo, but he generated no official interest.
U.S. companies signed about $100 million in cash contracts with Cuba as a result of the expo, the South Carolina organizing committee said.
Last year, U.S. companies shipped about $165 million worth of food to Cuba.
Gregg said the lack of official interest is what prompted he and others to form a nonprofit organization dedicated to a Cuba-South Carolina relationship.
About 60 to 65 people began meeting monthly in December, Gregg said, and the change in state government has led to more receptiveness to its efforts.
The organization tentatively plans to send a delegation to Cuba in mid-May.