From Iowa to Cuba

Editor’s note: This column was originally published June 14, 2015. An Iowa trade delegation led by state Sen. Steve Sodders of State Center and former Special Ambassador Carlos Portes of Marshalltown will depart for Cuba this week.

Establishing a trade path from Iowa to Cuba has proven to be a challenge but the work is being done.

Following President Obama’s announcement late last year that the United States would restore diplomatic relations and expand economic ties with Cuba, there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes work going on in establishing a viable and substantive trade mission between Iowa and the island nation of 11 million people.

In the mix has been the hard work of three Marshall County men – former special Ambassador Carlos Portes and Democratic lawmakers Steve Sodders and Mark Smith – all of them continuing to negotiate with interested parties in establishing a mission trip that would be both economically substantial as well as historic.

Sodders, especially, has been busy on the phone as of late, discussing the merits of the trip and how it could be an important and historic effort in improving the lives of the Cuban people as well as increasing economic prospects for Iowa’s ag producers, manufacturers, businesses, bankers, educators and different Iowa entities.

Earlier this year, the Iowa Senate passed a resolution, crafted by Sodders and Smith, that supported enhanced trade between the state and Cuba. It was an important first step, especially when you consider the kind of products and services the state could offer Cuba – the best quality corn, soybeans, pork, manufactured ag equipment as well as advances in technology and medicine.

Members of the Iowa Senate realized its importance and passed the measure with little argument.

Smith’s similar resolution in the Iowa House, however, was held up because of a few House members playing politics. Whether there were legitimate concerns over Cuba’s human rights issues or concerns about Republicans in D.C. and Des Moines fearing they might actually agree with Obama on this issue, some legislators have refused to consider any type of trade mission.

But that cynicism and lack of vision is a slap in the face to Iowa’s hard-working farmers and business owners who understand that a trade relationship between Cuba and the United States, specifically Iowa, is good for everyone. I’ve said it before in previous columns, but expanding that relationship will help to shine a more transparent light on Cuba’s human rights violations, prompting more scrutiny and forcing Cuba to rethink some of its policies.

In turn, we’re talking about the potential of millions of dollars as well as the creation of jobs in the state. I don’t care if you’re a corn and soybean farmer in Marshall County, a manufacturing plant manager, or if you’re sitting in the governor’s mansion in Des Moines, it’s foolish to ignore the economic impact a trade mission like this could have on Iowa.

And public sentiment seems clear. The majority of Americans favor normalized relations with Cuba, understanding that opening doors can open hearts and minds.

There’s still a lot of work left to do, as both Sodders and Portes keep reminding me. But given the work done thus far and the desire by most Iowans who understand the economic boost a trade mission like this could have on the state, we have to keep pushing forward in establishing this most historic effort.

“I still don’t know if everybody knows how huge this will be,” Sodders told me earlier this year. “Now we’re getting to the point where the door is open … this is a great gold mine of opportunity.

“Just think of where we could be with our products. These are things that could improve the lives of Iowans.”

Portes said the same thing:

“We want to be the first [state] to open those doors. No other state has the opportunities we have now. We’re telling the Cubans we’re open to do business and we want to come and show you we’re sincere.”

Let’s make it happen, for the good of the Cuban people and for all Iowans.

Contact Jeff Hutton at 641-753-6611 or