Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Pennsylvania Businesses Join Effort to Loosen Cuba Trade Restrictions

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Pennsylvania Businesses Join Effort to Loosen Cuba Trade Restrictions

Article excerpt

Washington County farmer Doug Bentrem is interested in improving the market for agricultural products, like the beef he produces at his family's farm.

Tyler Laughlin, of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, wants to add nonstop destinations to the portfolio of Pittsburgh International Airport, and Chris Heck, president of the Pittsburgh Airport Area Chamber of Commerce, would like to promote development of industry in the Greater Pittsburgh area.

According to all three, their interests coincide with efforts to improve trade relations between the United States and Cuba.

Mr. Bentrem, Mr. Laughlin and Mr. Heck were among a group of Pittsburgh-area business leaders gathered Tuesday - even as President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un met in Singapore - to discuss America's relationship with a much closer country where relationships have also been bumpy.

A group called Engage Cuba held a luncheon at the Rivers Club in Downtown Pittsburgh to launch a new Pennsylvania branch - a "state council," according to the group's parlance.

The Washington, D.C.-based lobbying organization is seeking to end trade and travel restrictions in effect since 1960 by influencing members of Congress, prominent business interests and voters.

State organizations represent an important part of the strategy, and Pennsylvania is now the 18th state council of Engage Cuba.

According to Jim Bialick, vice president of Engage Cuba, Pittsburgh already has a "unique" role in the U.S.-Cuba relationship. "It's a model for how we'd like to expand."

Since 1998, Pittsburgh has had a sister city partnership with Matanzas, a city approximately 50 miles east of Havana on Cuba's northern coast. Jim Ferlo, a former city council member and state senator who is now president of the Pittsburgh-Matanzas Sister City Partnership, noted the relationship had helped change opinions here by organizing several trips to Cuba.

"When people go to Cuba, they are changed," Mr. Ferlo said Tuesday. "We can never stop visiting Cuba and engaging."

There's been a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations in recent years and some agricultural and medical products have fallen under a limited exception to the trade restrictions since 2000.

But the financial provisions of the decades-old trade embargo have prevented Cuban importers from accessing American credit to make imports more financially viable, Mr. Bialick explained.

James Williams, president of the organization, noted that the recent transition of power in Cuba has coincided with an economic downturn there. …

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