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Business and Economy

Maine Delegation: Thawing Relationship With Cuba Opens Trade Opportunities

WASHINGTON - Members of Maine's congressional delegation are looking to Cuba as a potential trade partner with the state.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree both say Maine businesses should take advantage of the recent thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations to rebuild trade with the island nation - rebuild, they say, because it was once a robust relationship.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Maine had a booming trade with Cuba. Maine shipped ice harvested from its rivers and lumber from its forests to the growing country. Cuba shipped some fruit, but mostly sugar to be used in Maine refineries to make rum and other liquor.

All trade with Cuba ended with the revolution led by Fidel Castro in 1959 and only slowly has returned in recent years. First District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, a former state legislator, went on a trade trip with several state officials to Cuba in 2005. She says the rules in place then were too restrictive for developing trade.

"Some of the systems that were set up requiring cash in advance and very complicated trade rules really didn't make it happen," Pingree says, "and we are seeing a huge change going on right now with this administration opening up trade relations with Cuba."

Pingree says Maine should take advantage of the need Cuba has to import most of its food. She says, historically, there were a lot of food exports to Cuba from Maine, including cattle. She says food and other agricultural products could provide huge trade opportunities for the state.

"It could be a huge advantage for Maine, and really for our whole country, because Cuba buys a lot of its food right now from Vietnam, from other countries, and, you know, we could be their supplier," Pingree says. We are so close."

Maine Sen. Susan Collins shares Pingree's optimism about potential economic opportunities. She was in Cuba last month and met with several top Cuban officials, including First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel. Collins says some of the conversations were about lifting travel restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba, but trade was also on the agenda.

"I had read an article that there was a shortage of potatoes in Cuba. And I said, 'This is a problem I can solve for you, Mr. Vice President,' " Collins says. "I also talked with them about the possibility of importing blueberries, which I think would be very popular in Cuba."

Collins agrees with Pingree that food exports to Cuba could be a boost to Maine's economy, and at the same time help the Cubans with their long-time problems of food shortages. "I would love for the state of Maine to help solve the problem of food insecurity in Cuba."

Both lawmakers say there are several bills pending in both the House and Senate that are aimed at normalizing the relationship between the two countries and restoring trade.

One of those measures is co-sponsored by Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent. His legislation would lift the trade embargo, allow U.S. financial institutions to extend credit to Cuban enterprises, and allow the private sector to create trade promotion and marketing programs aimed at the Cuban market. The legislation has yet to have a hearing.