NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - From poultry to plastics, local trade officials are anticipating big things out of freer trade with Cuba. They're now planning trade trips to help re-establish New Orleans as a major trading partner after decades of decline.
Fifty years ago, before the Cuban trade embargo, 60 percent of all imports and exports to the island nation came through New Orleans.
"Prior to 1961, New Orleans was the largest trading partner with Cuba," Port Director Gary LaGrange said.
Now that President Barack Obama has proposed lifting that embargo, state and local officials are expecting big things. They say port traffic can increase by a half-billion a year in just two years, with more on the way.
"But the potential over the next 10 years is between $1 billion and $1.5 billion increase in export activity, primarily in food, farm equipment, petrochemicals and consumer goods," said Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain.
New Orleans' cold storage could see a dramatic uptick in exported chicken, and Louisiana rice farmers could also benefit.
"The average Cuban consumes more than 110 pounds of rice a year. Second, they consume a lot of poultry. In Louisiana, we have the largest poultry exporting facility in this hemisphere," LaGrange said.
Port officials say new cruise ship traffic to Cuba is also likely, and areas like the Napoleon Avenue wharf could get a whole lot busier. They say much of the groundwork for expanded Cuban trade has already been laid.
"That agreement that we did in Cuba - and Blanco signed in 2005 - that went a long way to help us operate under the 2001 mandate. That eased it up a little bit," LaGrange said.
"That was a $15 million trade deal," Strain said.
LaGrange said the opportunities are enormous, especially if Cuba begins to build it's economy.
"If you don't have a middle class mindset, you have nothing," LaGrange said. "Right now the average wage in Cuba is $17 a week. You gotta do better than that."
Port officials plan to build on what we already have.
"We will have a trade trip going to Cuba, and we're working to keep it cost-efficient," Strain said.
Congress is now considering funding a new U.S. embassy in Havana. That vote is expected to stir up opposition to relaxed trade with Cuba among some who don't want to see the Castro regime profit from new trade deals.