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Trade Mission: Cuba

Rich Berning

A steady stream of American elected officials have traveled to Cuba since the two countries restored diplomatic ties over the summer.

Arkansas' governor was the first governor to go, last month.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner hasn't yet, and maybe he never will; the spokeswoman for Illinois' commerce department didn't return a call or email asking. Of course right now his hands are full with the state budget, though as a candidate, he talked about traveling to increase foreign exports and investments.

But a pair of Illinois politicians are in the early waves of traveling to the island nation: Congresswoman Cheri Bustos and Congressman Rodney Davis are both in Cuba now, on a trade mission. They arrived Saturday.

Here's the thing -- despite the change in status in relations between the two countries, agricultural products have for years been exempt from the U.S. embargo put in place in the '60s.

Records show in 2008, Illinois exported $66 million in corn and soy to Cuba.

"But the problem is the folks in Cuba have to pay in advance for those exports; they can't get any credit. So that has really hurt us over time," said Bustos, a Rock Island Democrat.

Republican Congressman Davis of Taylorville is also on the agriculture committee, he says he's taking the trip "to look at some common sense changes, to ensure that Cubans number one can have access to a plentiful food supply - which frankly, under the form of government they're living under and the sheer fact that they are an island nation - they have a problem feeding their population. We need to ensure that the Cubans who would demand products from Illinois ought to have an opportunity to get them."

Leaders from the state chamber of commerce, farm bureau and corn and soybean councils are also part of the trade mission.

Bustos and Davis aren't the only elected officials from Illinois to have made the trip to Cuba in the recent past.

Back in January, before the U.S. and Cuba normalized relations, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin went with other Democrats.

And back in 1999, then Gov. George Ryan traveled to Cuba for five days with a contingent of lawmakers, teachers, high-level Caterpillar and Archer Daniels Midland employees and some journalists. At the time, as one newspaper put it, Ryan the "first sitting U.S. governor to travel to Cuba since Castro seized power in 1959."

Representatives Bustos and Davis are in Cuba through Wednesday.

Amanda Vinicky moved to Chicago Tonight on WTTW-TV PBS in 2017.
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