Relations between the United States and Cuba have been thawing over the past year. Earlier this month, the countries stuck a deal for regular flights between the two nations, and the United States reopened its embassy in Havana over the summer. But while much is still up to Congress to fully restore relations with the island country, Georgia lawmakers have been eyeing how better relations with Cuba would help the Peach State.
One area they’re looking at: chicken.
“Some people have calculated that if Georgia were a country, that we would be the sixth or seventh-largest poultry-producing country in the world,” said Mike Lacy, head of the Poultry Science Department at the University of Georgia.
Georgia leads the nation in poultry production, producing about 1.4 billion meat chickens per year, Lacy said. And much of that meat is going abroad.
This year, Georgia lawmakers created a Senate Study Committee to look at how normalization of relations with Cuba could benefit Georgia industries, including poultry.
Cuba’s been the fifth-largest export market for U.S. chicken, according to the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council.
“Primarily what we export are the dark meat – the leg quarters, the drumsticks, the thighs, the whole legs,” said Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council based in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Sumner said that’s because Americans prefer white meat, which is sold at a premium. But in some countries, like countries in Latin America and Asia, consumers prefer the dark meat, he said.
“Probably 99 percent of our shipments to Cuba are, in fact, the dark meat,” Sumner said.
Despite the trade embargo still in place with Cuba, the United States has been exporting dark chicken meat to the island country since 2001, thanks to exemptions that allowed for the sale of agricultural products and medicine.
“It’s funny because I think in a lot of respects what you’ve seen is an exponential uptick in trade with Cuba sort of despite a lot of barriers that still remain,” said Jennifer Harris, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
In 2014, the state exported $8.6 million worth of poultry to Cuba, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
Harris said there could be more the United States could gain if the trade embargo was lifted. Right now, Cubans are still required to pay cash in advance for agricultural products.
“You could imagine how much trouble U.S. businesses, any business, would have in doing all of their business without any access to credit. And it’s no different in this case,” Harris said.
She said those restrictions could benefit the Cuban economy, causing incomes to rise and more demand for other cuts of poultry – something that could benefit Georgia and neighboring states.
But Republicans in the South have traditionally opposed lifting the embargo because of Cuba’s communist government.
“Most of the gains that we could most readily imagine are concentrated in the Southeastern parts of the United States, which, ironically, you still see some of the most concentrated opposition to lifting the embargo,” she said.
But some Georgia lawmakers aren’t deterred. As part of the Senate Study Committee, Sen. David Lucas (D-Macon) along with a small delegation visited Cuba this fall. The committee recently issued a report on their findings, after holding two hearings on the subject.
Their recommendation? Georgia business leaders and lawmakers need to set up relations now with the Cuban government and people to prepare for if or when the trade embargo is lifted.
“Georgia needs to be prepared and ready for when the opportunity does open,” the report said. "Atlanta can become the business gateway to Cuba."