WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s move to normalize relations with Cuba could prove to be an economic boon to Arkansas’ rice and poultry industries.

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s move to normalize relations with Cuba could prove to be an economic boon to Arkansas’ rice and poultry industries.


Although a longstanding U.S. economic embargo on Cuba can only be lifted by Congress, Obama plans to expand economic ties with the island nation that sits 90 miles off the Florida coast, including easing financial regulations that proved a roadblock to agricultural exports that otherwise have been permitted for more than a decade.


"Certainly, there is a great deal of interest in the details of this proposal," said Ben Noble, director of the Arkansas Rice Federation.


Cuba was a top importer of U.S.-grown rice before the 1962 embargo. American rice growers resumed trade in 2000 after Congress passed legislation permitting food and drug exports to Cuba, and by 2004 the U.S. was exporting more than 176,000 metric tons of rice there annually. That trade came to an end after the Bush administration tightened trade financing rules that were cost prohibitive.


The White House on Wednesday said it would do away with the Bush-era financing restrictions and go back to the system that had allowed U.S. agricultural goods to be sold to Cuba.


"I believe that American businesses should not be put at a disadvantage, and that increased commerce is good for Americans and for Cubans," Obama said in a televised address Wednesday. "So we will facilitate authorized transactions between the United States and Cuba. U.S. financial institutions will be allowed to open accounts at Cuban financial institutions. And it will be easier for U.S. exporters to sell goods in Cuba."


Noble said rice growers have been seeking a legislative fix for nearly a decade in the hopes of restoring a potentially important export market.


"With Cuba being a very large consumer of rice and being so close to Arkansas, it could be a significant trading partner," he said.


Arkansas could add nearly $80 million annually to its economy through trade with Cuba, according to Eric Wailes, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.


"It is a significant development," he said.


Cuba imported more than 400 metric tons of rice last year mostly from Vietnam as well as Brazil. The United States should reasonably be expected to secure a quarter of the Cuban import market, or 100 metric tons, Wailes said. That would provide about $80 million in direct, indirect and induced benefits to the Arkansas rice economy.


Rick Bransford, president of the Agricultural Council of Arkansas, said he hoped the president’s announcement will lead to more open trade with Cuba.


"Cuba could and should be a major export market for Arkansas produced agricultural goods. While we are still learning about the full impact of the recently announced agreement between the U.S. and Cuba, we believe we are one step closer to more normalized trade with this important market for Arkansas rice and other Arkansas commodities," Bransford said.


Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., welcomed Obama’s effort to normalize relations with Cuba.


"What we have done for decades simply hasn’t worked," Boozman said. "When we have trade and commerce we also trade ideas. And, to be consistent we trade now with a lot worse when it comes to human rights."


Boozman said the easing of trade restrictions would be a particular benefit to Arkansas, noting that Cuba would be a significant market for rice as well as poultry raised in Arkansas.