RICHMOND — Virginia’s exports to Cuba shot up to $42 million last year, allowing the commonwealth to leap past four other states to become the island’s largest source for U.S. agricultural products.
Sales to Cuba were up 67 percent in 2015 over the previous year, a spike that Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said was the result of more than a decade of outreach efforts. Virginia producers sold Cuba $42 million in agricultural products, all of it soybeans and soybean meal for use in animal feed. That was up from $25 million in 2014, but still below the $66 million peak that Virginia-Cuba trade hit in 2012.
“Virginia has been a leader in the development of relations with Cuba since federal law allowed for the export of foods and agricultural commodities to the country,” said McAuliffe, who led a trade mission to the communist nation in January. “I am pleased that our efforts to foster mutually beneficial exchange with Cuba have led to increased agricultural exports for our Virginia producers.”
Virginia’s recent trading history with Cuba began shortly after the United States loosened restrictions in 2000 on agricultural and medical exports for humanitarian reasons. Starting with Mark R. Warner in 2003, Virginia governors have been dispatching representatives to Cuba’s annual trade fair.
McAuliffe tried to build on that foundation even before the recent thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations prompted other government leaders — including those in the District and Maryland — to explore potential deals with a Cold War-era foe.
He has visited many times with Cuban Ambassador José R. Cabañas in Washington and twice hosted him in Richmond. McAuliffe and his agriculture secretary, Todd Haymore, met with the ambassador at the Cuban Embassy in the District on Thursday night, along with Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz, Cuba’s minister of foreign trade and investment. Malmierca originally planned to visit McAuliffe in Richmond on Monday, but the visit was postponed because of snow.
A little more than a year ago, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro called for normalizing relations between their countries, which loosened some restrictions on trade and travel but still left many in place. This week, Obama announced that he will visit Cuba in late March.
The recent detente has led other government leaders to take an interest in Cuba. Officials from District and Maryland will make a trade mission to the island late this week. Virginia Commerce Secretary Maurice Jones, who did not take part in McAuliffe’s trip, will join the Washington-area delegation.
McAuliffe has expressed hope that Virginia’s trading history with Cuba will give it a competitive advantage when and if the broader trade embargo is lifted. While still limited to agriculture, the newly released trade figures show Virginia making gains.
In recent years, Virginia has been among Cuba’s top three American trading partners, but it slipped to No. 5 in 2014, behind Louisiana, Georgia, Florida and Alabama. In 2015, Virginia passed all those states to take the No. 1 spot.
In general, Cuban trade with the United States started dropping off after 2012, as the Cuban economy struggled and government buyers opted to purchase more from other countries that, unlike the United States, allow them to buy on credit. The Cuban economy and credit barriers remain obstacles to trade with the United States, which overall has slipped from $348 million in 2013 to $148 million in 2015.
But Virginia has been able to scoop up a larger share of that shrinking pie. The state’s sales represented 28 percent of total U.S. exports to Cuba last year — up from 8 percent in 2014.
Over the past decade, Virginia’s exports to Cuba have added up to more than $423 million, Haymore said.
“I’m hopeful that Virginia agribusiness will continue to serve as a catalyst for more positive change and create new opportunities for other sectors of the Virginia economy as the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba evolves to normalization,” he said.