Miami has been at the center of reactions to President Obama’s end-of-the-year surprise announcement that the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba after 56 years. But as formal talks begin next week, another American city that has played an outsized role in the U.S relationship with Havana will be paying attention.
New Orleans, once the main port between the U.S. and points south — from the Caribbean to the rest of Latin America — is poised to recapture some of the commerce that was cut off when John F. Kennedy proclaimed an embargo on all trade with Cuba on February 3, 1962.
Before that fateful day, says Mike Strain, Louisiana commissioner of agriculture and forestry, “more than 60 percent of all Cuban imports from and exports to the United States passed through the Port of New Orleans.” The mouth of the mighty Mississippi was the conduit for poultry, beef and rice headed across the Gulf of Mexico from U.S. farmers, with sugar and tobacco coming back in return. “If you talk to the older farmers and exporters, they remember that,” Strain says.
It’s a relationship that runs deep. “The old adage that geography is destiny was never more true than for New Orleans,” says Ned Sublette, author of The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square. “The city is where it is for strategic reasons, and part of that complex of reasons is its connection via the loop current with Havana, which for centuries was the most important port in the hemisphere. New Orleans and Havana are natural partners.”
Even during the embargo, limited legal trade conducted via third parties has continued. According to Matt Gresham, a spokesperson for the Port of New Orleans, as of October, 23,000 tons of poultry had been shipped to Cuba in 2014. Normalization, however, should bring improvements to the import/export structure. Strain says he has no doubt that rising investment in Cuba will, in turn, lead to a demand for Louisiana products.
While the exile community in Miami has maintained a militantly anti-Castro stance from day one, New Orleans’ and Louisiana’s civic leaders have been more conciliatory. Former governor Kathleen Blanco led a trade delegation in 2005 that inked a $15 million deal. In 2009, Ray Nagin became the first New Orleans mayor in 50 years to visit Havana.
Not that fraternizing with the perceived enemy went over well on the homefront. “Ray Nagin was pilloried for having gone there, and so was Kathleen Blanco,” Sublette points out. “But as far as I’m concerned, in both cases it was something they did right, and very justifiable in terms of looking out for New Orleans’ interests.”
Any improvement in relations can only be good news for the already bustling Port of New Orleans, the fourth largest in the U.S. by tonnage in 2012 (three other Louisiana ports are in the top 10, including No. 1, the Port of South Louisiana). “The port is why New Orleans is here,” Gresham says, “It has a major economic impact, responsible for 160,000 local jobs and $17 billion in spending.”
Based on his research of the historical relationship, Sublette agrees. “It [normalization] presents a tremendous commercial opportunity for New Orleans right now to reassert itself as a major commercial partner of Havana,” he says.
That goes for smaller-scale industries like tourism and culture as well. Sublette cites CubaNOLA, an organization that for two decades has arranged cultural tourism, permitted under the special license for people-to-people educational travel. He adds, “The possibilities for connecting up the New Orleans music scene with that of Havana are tremendously exciting.”
But for now, with congressional action anybody’s guess, Sublette maintains the same position as Louisiana officials: “Let’s see what happens.”
Still, he feels confident that geography and economics favor New Orleans. “If Cuba can buy more beans from North Dakota,” he says, “they’ll have to come down the Mississippi … .”
Gregory Scruggs writes about cities and culture, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean.