Good Timing for Arkansas Gov. Reaching to Cuba
"Arkansas is particularly well-situated to be a major exporter of our goods and products to Cuba, and it's a new market, in terms of expansion," Beebe said. "They want to do more. They want to increase the share of what Cuba buys from Arkansas."
Expanding that market is going to take some time and some factors out of Beebe's control, but experts say the Arkansas governor couldn't have picked a better time to reach out to the communist country.
Though careful to avoid saying whether he thinks the embargo should be lifted, Beebe noted that he visited the country at a time when the Obama administration has shown signs that it may consider easing trade and travel restrictions even more.
Officials from Cuba and the United States discussed immigration in July for the first time since 2003. The Obama administration lifted restrictions on Cuban-Americans who want to travel or send money to the island.
"I think it's a very appropriate time for the governor of Arkansas, or any other governor for that matter, to go down there," said Kirby ( KEX - news - people ) Jones, founder and president of the U.S-Cuba Trade Association.
Beebe isn't the first to try to tap into Cuba as an expanded market for Arkansas, and certainly not the first governor of a state to reach out to the island nation. Seeing a potential to increase the state's rice and poultry exports to Cuba, members of the state's congressional delegation have made trips there in recent years.
Among the congressmen from the state who have visited Cuba is Rep. Marion Berry, who says he doesn't see how the embargo has benefited the United States at all.
"This embargo has never done anything but give Fidel Castro, when he was the actual leader there, a huge political advantage," Berry said.
Arkansas has already enjoyed some trade with Cuba under a 2000 exemption that allowed limited agricultural exports to the nation. Last year, the state exported $32,996 in goods to Cuba, all of which was cotton and fabric, said Scott Hardin, a spokesman with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.
That was a steep drop from 2007, when the state exported $1.3 million in meat and poultry to the island nation. In 2006, the state exported $1.4 million worth of goods, mostly rice and cereal.
Beebe says he thinks that can increase even more, saying he saw an interest from Cuban officials in the state's rice and poultry products.
"I'm optimistic because, just on the pure merits, we've got something that is better than most folks in the rest of the world and can do it better and can do it efficiently and can do it more productively," Beebe said. "I don't think anybody can grow rice or can have the kind of livestock and poultry efficiency that Arkansas has, and I think that's proven by the relative stature that our companies have."
Proving that stature may require more than one visit, though. Beebe joined a growing roster of governors, senators and congressmen who have traveled to the country to promote their states' exports. And some aren't stopping with one trip to the country.
Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, whose state has exported millions of dollars in agricultural products to Cuba, has traveled to the island nation four times. Beebe's office says he doesn't have any immediate plans to return, but experts say he may want to consider planning another trip if he's serious about outreach.
Bobby Coats, an economist with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service, says Beebe's trip to Cuba gives the state an advantage by showing he wants to work with the country.
"To me, if I were the major leadership of Cuba, I would look at that as an extremely important willingness to cultivate significant relationships," Coats said.