To say Cuba is an untapped market for Texas exporters is an understatement.
The second-largest U.S. state trades with tiny Vatican City nearly as much as a nation of 11 million people a few hundred miles away, and it might not change anytime soon under President-elect Donald Trump.
In the days after Fidel Castro’s death, Trump has threatened to renege on recently negotiated trade relations between Cuba and the United States, tweeting that he will “terminate” trade unless Cuba is willing to “make a better deal.”
That means agricultural and manufacturing interests in Texas who hope to sell beef to a country where it can’t be purchased might need to temper hopes of increased exports in the coming years.
If Cuba was open for trade, Texas could export $18.8 million in agricultural products alone to the island – which would create $43 million in economic activity and over 200 jobs in the state, according to a 2015 report by the Center for North American Studies at Texas A&M University.
Cuba ranks 210th among all nations in total exports from Texas, just ahead of Vatican City and just behind Kiribati, a collection of coral atolls in the Central Pacific with a population of just over 100,000 people.
Just $62,291 in exports went to Cuba from Texas in 2015, including manufactured goods like cars and raw materials like oil and natural gas, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
President Barack Obama traveled to Cuba in March, where he met with Fidel Castro’s brother Raúl to discuss eliminating the decades-old trade embargo. In October, Obama lifted restrictions on bringing rum and cigars from Cuba into the United States.
But Fidel Castro’s death brought out a slew of politicians, mostly Republicans, criticizing Obama’s recent overtures to Cuba.
“What the Obama administration has done is strengthen Raúl Castro,” said Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, a Cuban-American. “Raúl is the dictator now.”
Cruz expressed hope that Trump’s administration will be tougher on Cuba.
“It is very much my hope and belief that with a new president coming into office in January, President Trump, a new administration, that U.S. foreign policy, not just to Cuba, but towards our enemies ... will no longer be a policy of weakness and appeasement, but instead using U.S. strength to force and press for change,” Cruz said in a television appearance with ABC News.
Cruz and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida are noted detractors of increasing trade with Cuba while it remains under communist control, but some Texas Republicans are hopeful of increased trade.
“It is only 900 miles between Houston and Havana, but for more than five decades it might well have been a million miles,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said in a statement in 2015.
“Now is the time for our two nations to work together to improve relations and what better way to do that than through food. Texas agricultural products are the best in the world and I am working to expand agriculture trading relationships across the globe, and that includes the Cuban market. While I strongly disagree with Cuba’s political philosophy, by expanding trade, Cubans can see the success of democracy and embrace a free market society, and at the same time, Texans will benefit through trade growth.”
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is under consideration for secretary of agriculture or commerce secretary, was critical of Obama’s Cuba policy in 2015.
“We got the way short end of that deal,” Perry said of Obama opening up trade with Cuba during a 2015 speech in Iowa. “We got a bad deal. This administration basically empowered the Castro regime with no thought of the Cuban people.”
But business interests on the island have been rapidly expanding over the past few months. Starwood Hotels, owned by Marriott, signed a deal earlier this year to run a hotel once owned by the Cuban military. On Monday, American Airlines launched the first flight from Miami to Havana in more than 50 years.
In the 1990s, Trump controlled a company that secretly did business in Cuba despite strict trade bans between the U.S. and Cuba, according to Newsweek.
Trump benefited from Cuban-American support in Florida, winning between 52 and 54 percent of the Cuban vote in the state. He frequently mentioned Cuba while campaigning in Florida, even when he was appearing in areas of the state without a significant Cuban population.