RICHMOND, Va. —
Those sales make Cuba Virginia's seventh-largest export market, more than twice as large as 20th-ranked Britain. And it puts the commonwealth behind just two states — Louisiana and Florida — in trade with Cuba.
Maryland has had more modest exports to the island, but those have held fairly steady. The state sold $12.3 million in soybeans to Cuba in 2008 and $11 million in 2010, the last year for which figures were available.
Credit restrictions on trade became especially onerous during the recession, when a drop-off in European tourism left the already strapped Cuba even more short of cash. That drove Cuba toward suppliers in Asia and South America, said Kirby Jones, president of Alamar Associates, an Arizona-based consulting company that works with companies doing business in Cuba.
"Brazil has offered several hundred million in credits for soybeans. Vietnam and China extended credits to buy their rice," Jones said. "They have not bought any rice from us in several years. Not a grain."
But Virginia has been able to expand its business during that period by actively courting the Cubans as other states have pulled back on international marketing efforts.
"Some of them backed off simply because trade has fallen," Jones said. "Virginia has been one of the most active. . . . The Cuban officials are like anybody else: They like to do business with people they know. . . . So many products are so competitive, and they're priced by the world market anyway. It comes down to two suppliers at basically the same price — that's where the personal contact becomes very important."
Reaching out to communist Cuba was not the most obvious course for a conservative state — even when the object was promoting agribusiness. Then-Gov. Mark R. Warner, D, was itching to lead a Virginia trade mission to the island when he took office in 2002, not long after President Clinton signed the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act. Warner was dissuaded by advisers who were worried about the optics of a potential sit-down with Fidel Castro.