Ag stakeholders combine to back end to Cuban embargo

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, Jan. 8, 2015 - With bipartisan support from some key members of Congress, more than 30 farm groups and agribusinesses on Thursday officially launched a coalition to work for the end of the half-century old Cuban embargo and to increase trade with the communist country, a plan that President Barack Obama outlined in mid-December.

“Changes to U.S. policy toward Cuba can support economic growth and well-being in both countries," Devry Boughner Vorwerk, a Cargill vice president and chair of the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba (USAAC), said at a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington. “Improvements in Cuba market access allows for U.S. farmers, ranchers and food companies to serve a nearby market and the Cuban people gain improved access to healthy and affordable food and feed."

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Speaking in support of the coalition were U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan.; as well as Representatives Sam Farr, D-Calif.; Kevin Kramer, R-N.D., and Rodney Davis, R.-Ill. Jay Nixon, Missouri's Democratic governor, was there to lend his backing, as was U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Vilsack, a former governor of the key agriculture state of Iowa, said the president's policies will remove technical barriers between U.S. and Cuban companies and create a more efficient and less burdensome opportunity for Cuba's 11 million citizens to buy U.S. agricultural products.

“Cuba imports about 80 percent of its food,” Vilsack said. “Which means there is significant economic potential for our producers. It's a $1.7 billion market. Our rice growers, our wheat growers, our corn growers, our soy growers, poultry and beef producers, all have opportunities in this new day.”

Indeed, every one of the groups representing the agriculture producers Vilsack mentioned is represented in the coalition. The USAAC also includes the American Farm Bureau Federation, the International Dairy Foods Association, the National Association of Wheat Growers, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, the North American Export Grain Association as well as Smithfield Foods, Chicago Foods International, Cargill and CoBank.

Obama last month announced a series of executive actions that include loosening Treasury Department restrictions that require Cuba to pay for purchases of agricultural commodities though a third-country bank. Cuba will still have to pay in cash, but U.S. banks will be allowed to deal directly with Cuban financial institutions. Agricultural stakeholders hope that these actions will help push U.S. farm exports well beyond the $710 million peak they reached in 2008, under limited trade access. Shipments have fallen to about half that number in recent years.

The president also called for loosening travel restrictions and re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, which ended after Fidel Castro took power in the late 1950s, and setting up a U.S. embassy in Havana.

Under current sanctions, U.S. food and agriculture companies can legally export to Cuba. However, existing restrictions put U.S. shippers at a competitive disadvantage, allowing U.S. rivals such as Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Vietnam to win market share from the U.S.

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USAAC chair Boughner Vorwerk said the group will now be working on Capitol Hill to get the president's agenda approved. Several speakers said that won't be easy, pointing to the small but powerful Cuban-American bloc in Congress that opposes any relaxation of restrictions against Cuba, citing human rights violations by the government of Fidel Castro, and how his brother Raúl.

Congressman Cramer acknowledged the difficult road ahead but he suggested a “little by little” approach, cautioning there's “no need to go all in.” Obama's push for greater commerce with Cuba, he said, is an opportunity to spread liberty which is “not to be squandered.”

Paul Johnson, USAAC vice chairman and the president of Chicago Foods International, agreed.

It's going to take time for Congress to get comfortable with Cuba,” Johnson said. “But we need to end this embargo.”

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