President-elect Donald Trump making good on his campaign promise to undo or renegotiate agreements with Cuba would jeopardize a projected $200 million a year in business for the Port of South Louisiana.
“It’s a period of wait and see because we need to see what the new administration does and what it will represent with ports,” said port Executive Director Paul Aucoin. “But we think, in the end, it will be something we can work with.”
On the campaign trail, Trump lambasted the Obama administration’s “concessions” made with Cuba’s Communist government, raising worries that he could override long sought trade with the country.
Aucoin said he had met with a member of Trump’s transition team Thursday, but it was over getting dredging funds for the Mississippi River. This also has been a longtime issue for the port, which requires financial assistance to keep a 50-foot depth for access to the port’s grain elevators.
Trade is always a concern, according to Aucoin. But he said he’s more focused on getting Trumps signature on proposed agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP.“Those, to me, are very important to me,” he said.
Trump has maintained he won’t lift the trade embargo with Cuba without more concessions and talk with Cuba, but he has not detailed these concessions.
“The port’s position is we’re poised and ready to conduct trade with Cuba, and we think it would beneficial to Louisiana,” he said. “It would increase trade and jobs to provide this cargo to another port.”
But Aucoin also said, “We’ve done quite well without Cuba. We won’t turn down another customer, but the port can survive without Cuba.”
The facility has handled 292.7 million short tons of business this year, a figure he expects to grow next year.“It’s an economic engine,” Aucoin said of the port.The port is attracting $23 billion in new capital investment into the port district, Aucoin said.
“Many of them are foreign investment, which Congress is welcoming because it’s foreign money building factories here, but employing the local labor market,” he said. Aucoin put the average yearly salary with these companies at $65,000 a year.
Still, Cuba trade has been on the agenda for some time and, overall, its anticipated economic impact statewide has been put around $400 million a year.
“Half of that would come out of the Port of South Louisiana,” Aucoin said. “Fifty percent of the grain that leaves the U.S. comes out of the port already to more than 90 countries. We feed the world.”
The economic rollover effect of the move would translate into more jobs in the area, as well as from Louisiana supplying those goods, he said.
“It will definitely mean additional jobs,” Aucoin said.
Earlier back from a trade mission to Cuba, the port director announced their intent to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the country’s National Port Administration of Cuba in October to exchange ideas, technology and cooperate in trade.
While in Cuba, Aucoin told Cuban officials and a Louisiana delegation that “lots of MOUs become symbolic instead of real.”
Courting Cuban business would likely help grow Louisiana businesses, particularly rice farmers.
“This would offer a closer access and cut shipping costs,” said Aucoin, estimating it is 600 nautical miles from New Orleans to Havana, Cuba. “I just feel we would be in a great position to do trade with Cuba.”
Fertilizers and phosphate rock are also potential exports, Aucoin said. Tourism could also be revived to the country with it serving as another cruise ship stop.
Efforts to court Cuba’s trade have been in the works years, as well as discussions with the Obama administration to end the trade embargo. The administration eased restrictions, but has not removed them.