Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

It took four failed attempts before long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad finally became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage. She completed that journey, 110 miles in total in some of the most challenging waters on the planet, at the age of 64. Her first attempt was at age 28.

Cuba has a population of approximately 11 million. At the closest point it is 93 miles from the island to the United States.

President Barack Obama’s move to re-establish full diplomatic ties with Cuba, including last week’s announcement that the two countries plan to reopen embassies in each other’s capitals, is intensifying congressional debate over the best way forward: continued isolation by the U.S. or engagement, with increased trade with the Castro government.

Rice in Missouri is grown mostly in the Bootheel.

A rice farmer from Dexter, Mo., asked his U.S. representative a question more than 15 years ago that launched two Missouri lawmakers into the first successful effort to open Cuba to U.S. trade since the embargo in the early 1960s.

The change came with restrictions that the Obama administration is now trying to remove, but it was the first crack in that trade wall.

Office of Sen. McCaskill

Missouri officials and businesses have been moving quickly to enter the Cuban market ever since President Barack Obama’s announcement in December of plans to drop the more than 50-year-old trade embargo.

Office of Sen. McCaskill

Just back from a trip to Cuba, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., says ending the embargo would be a win-win for both sides.

Office of Sen. McCaskill

If U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Gov. Jay Nixon get their way, Cubans will soon be dining on Missouri-grown rice, corn, pork, poultry and soy products while driving pickup trucks manufactured in the state. The two are aggressively pushing to open Cuba to trade following President Barack Obama’s announcement that the United States will normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Ray Howze/St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon made it official Thursday when he announced that he'll be leading an agricultural trade mission to Cuba in March.

Last month, Nixon, a Democrat, ordered his Agriculture Department to explore trade opportunities with the island nation, following President Barack Obama's decision to normalize relations with the communist regime.  Nixon says Missouri's farmers and livestock owners have a lot to gain by doing business with Cuba.

Jim Howard | St. Louis Public Radio

Gov. Jay Nixon was in Washington Thursday to join with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, business leaders and representatives from more than 30 agricultural trade associations to push for normalized relations and greater trade with Cuba.

The public launch of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition on Cuba comes less than a month after President Barack Obama announced plans to establish normal diplomatic relations with the island country. 

/ Véronique LaCapra, St. Louis Public Radio

Gov. Jay Nixon has ordered the Missouri Department of Agriculture to explore business opportunities in Cuba.

The move follows President Barack Obama's decision to normalize relations with the communist island nation. 

In a written statement released Tuesday, Nixon said that Missouri's agricultural exports are already up by 14 percent this year.

Sen. Dick Durbin met with Alan Gross, a contract worker for the Agency for International Development, in Cuba in 2012. Gross had been imprisoned since 2009.
Provided by Sen. Durbin's office

In 2012, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., traveled to Cuba to meet with imprisoned AID worker Alan Gross, but he also carried a message from President Barack Obama to leaders in Havana. “I told them this president was genuinely committed to looking for the right opportunity to improve relationships with Cuba,” Durbin said.

In conveying that message Durbin carried the credibility of being a long-time friend of the president and a high-ranking member of the Senate. “And I told them one of the big problems of course was the American prisoner, Alan Gross.”

(Courtesy: SIUE)

Cuba is only 90 miles from the Florida coast but it sometimes feels as if it’s much farther away.  While travel restrictions between the United States and Cuba have eased in recent years, their relationship over the last five decades is far from close.

A small group of students from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville just returned from a 10 day visit to Cuba under an educational arrangement between SIUE and the University of Havana.  Harvard University is the only other institution to take advantage of such an opportunity under the initiative.

(Illinois General Assembly website)

Reporting from Illinois Public Radio's Sean Crawford used in this report.

About a dozen Illinois state lawmakers are headed to Cuba this week for what's being called a trade mission.

Representative Jack Franks says the visit could boost state exports to Cuba.  The Democrat from Woodstock will be leading the week-long trip.  It's been 12 years since former Governor George Ryan traveled to Cuba in a high profile effort to build a new market for Illinois' farm economy.  Franks says trade with Cuba has fallen off since then.