Louisiana And Havana
09/25/2015 08:00AM ● Published by Aimee Cormier
By Erin Z.Bass | Photos by Larry Sides
On Aug. 14, Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Cuba, to formally re-designate the U.S. Embassy in Havana. For the first time in 54 years, America will once again have diplomatic ties with the Caribbean country in hopes that increased trade and travel will follow.
While many in the U.S. are excited about the potential to openly travel to Cuba, the Louisiana sugar cane industry isn’t so sure about a lifting of the trade embargo. The state has had no sugar relations with the island since the 1960s when Fidel Castro came into power and began governing under Communist rule.
Due to a lack of investment in the industry and antiquated mills, Cuba’s sugar production has fallen from a peak of more than 8 million tons of raw sugar to less than 2 million and exports of more than 7 million tons to less than 1 million. The country that once accounted for 12 percent of global production now only outputs about 1 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In 1793, a Louisiana man named Etienne Boré — who became known as “the savior of Louisiana” — figured out how to successfully make a profit from sugar cane grown in the state. In the years that followed, the opening of the slave trade, immigrants from the West Indies who were familiar with the crop and advances in the cultivation of cane all came together to grow what amounts to 13 million tons of sugar cane a year here. Today, the sugar industry is still vital to Louisiana’s economy with an annual economic impact of $2.2 billion, about 17,000 employees involved in production and 11 raw sugar factories.
Historically, as demand for sugar increased across the country, the booming American market also prompted rapid growth in Cuban sugar cane production. Although Louisiana remained the largest domestic producer of sugar into the 20th century, the state just couldn’t satisfy all the demands of the American market, and larger producers in Europe and Cuba often dictated prices. It’s a situation that still occurs today, most recently in 2014 when farmers received rock-bottom prices for their sugar at market due to the influx of millions of tons of imported Mexican sugar.
“We think it’s important to create a level playing field so domestic producers are protected from imported sugar,” says Jim Simon, general manager with the American Sugarcane League. “We follow the same path as the American Sugar Alliance, which represents the sugar cane and sugar beet growers of the United States, which is that we take no position on the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations.”
Simon does say that Cuba’s sugar industry is maybe half of what it once was and that the country is a long way from being able to compete in today’s market. “Their industry would have to undergo a renewal and hundreds of millions, if not billions, would have to be invested in their industry to bring it back up to the kind of producer they once were,” he says.
Even then, a specific quota for Cuban sugar would have to be negotiated. “Any time our trade negotiators negotiate and provide additional sugar access to the U.S., then we certainly have concerns,” he adds.
The world’s largest sugar importing country, the United States has trade agreements regarding sugar with the World Trade Organization (WTO), North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Simon explains that commitments like these have created a chronic risk of oversupply of the U.S. market and threaten the effective operation of the domestic sugar policy put in place by Congress.
“The U.S. sugar industry is deeply concerned that any future trade agreements, whether with Cuba or otherwise, not result in additional unneeded supplies of sugar flooding the U.S. market and causing an oversupply and price collapse,” he says.
While plenty of sugar cane is still grown in Cuba today, it’s tourism that makes up the country’s number one industry, and it’s the prospect of visiting the mysterious island that has most Americans aware of increased relations. Larry Sides, owner of local advertising agency Sides & Associates, has been traveling to Cuba as a photographer for the past 15 years and has already visited twice this year.
“In Havana, people are really seeing a difference between the rules that governed things like private business between the Fidel Castro reign and the Raúl Castro reign,” he says. “Major changes are hotel rooms are a lot harder to get and restaurants are more crowded.”
Sides fell in love with the Cuban culture after his first visit in 2000. He describes the people as always friendly, the beaches pristine and the countryside vast. “They care about the U.S., they care about what we think of them,” he says.
Christa Billeaud, whose late father Adrian Vega was a member of the first Cuban immigrant family to come to South Louisiana, remembers her dad saying his homeland was the most beautiful place on earth. “It was his country, it was where he came from, but he also remembered when Castro was coming down the mountain and killing people,” she says.
Vega fully embraced his life in America, becoming a citizen and owner of Acadiana Dodge, one of the top auto dealerships in town. “Cubans are the hardest workers you’ll ever meet,” says Billeaud, who now owns the dealership with her siblings. “They still have pride in the their work and a lot of integrity. That’s the only reflection of my Cuban heritage I can really see is my desire to do my best all the time.”
Hard work is a trait that can also be attributed to the Cajuns of South Louisiana, but Sides has noticed other similarities between Louisiana and Cuban culture — namely the growing of rice and sugarcane. He says sugar cane is a huge crop from one end of the island to the other, about the distance between Houston to Atlanta. And just like sugar cane can be seen swaying in the breeze alongside our highways and byways, it’s a similar scene in Cuba, only with palm trees and mountain ranges in the background.
Simon says Cuba does have the advantage of a year-round tropical growing season, but Louisiana’s industry is more efficient and mechanized. He realizes the politics involved have lots of people talking, but ultimately says open trade is a wait-and-see issue for now. (The league is much more concerned with Mexico and trade negotiations in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership.)
Although Cuba isn’t officially open for American tourists — those wanting to visit would still have to travel with an approved group — Sides says it’s an “exciting time for a fascinating place.”
Adrian Vega never had the chance to go back, and Billeaud says her father didn’t want to support Communism in any way. She feels the same and has no plans to visit, but hopes the political landscape of Cuba is very different for the sake of her two sons. “Hopefully in 20 years, if the regime would change, my kids could go and see where part of their family came from,” she says.