Cuba, US 'have to learn from each other,' Cuban ag minister says

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, June 2, 2016 - The agribusiness sectors of Cuba and the United States could both stand to learn a little from the other country, Cuba's agriculture minister said Thursday in Washington.

In an address at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters, Gustavo Rodriguez detailed the things that his sector hoped to learn from its American counterpart, but also what he thinks Cuban agriculture has to offer the U.S.

Cuba will need to learn fast, he said, because the government there wants to develop 6.2 million hectares of arable land - about 15.3 million acres - to keep up with increased demand brought about by policy changes and a projected uptick in tourism.

Rodriguez, speaking though a translator, spoke particularly highly of Cuba's organic agriculture sector and system of agricultural co-ops. While he sees these two areas of the country's economy as strengths, he also acknowledged both have a long way to go.

Lets Talk Food

Rodriguez said that when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was in Cuba, one of the things Vilsack noticed was Cuba's propensity for organic production. While organic produce could eventually carve out a nice niche for Cuban agriculture, Rodriguez said Cuban producers have grown organic “out of necessity, because we didn't have anything else,” referring to the inability to access biotechnology.

He said he wants the information exchange with the U.S. to have a focus on technology and equipment, but Cuba's organic sector also lacks any system of certification.

“(Vilsack) and I are going to exchange how (certification) is done in the U.S.,” Rodriguez said. “Based on how things are going, we need to have one or more methods of certification. But in order to sell it in the open market, it has to be more official.”

Cuba's farmers, he said, specialize in tropical fruit, particularly mango, guava, pineapple, papaya and avocado. Most producers use a form of the co-op business model in their production, but the ownership structure can vary. Rodriguez described three different kinds of co-ops: one with government ownership of land and private ownership of production; another where the co-op provides loans and other services; and a final method where a group of farmers produce together, such as small parcels of land in Havana, Cuba's capital city.

As for what Cuba hopes to receive from the U.S, Rodriguez said there is a great need for credit and equipment. He said the country needs longer term financing options. It is currently illegal for private U.S. lenders to offer credit to Cubans for most overseas purchases. There's also a well-known need for new agricultural equipment.

“A tractor is classified as a tractor, but since it is 40 years old, they call it a tractor but it doesn't work as one,” Rodriguez said, describing one example of Cuba's aging agriculture machinery fleet.

Cuban producers will also need help with maintenance when newer machinery finally starts arriving, Rodriguez added.

Thursday's visit marked the second trip to the U.S. by a Cuban cabinet member in the last five months after going about 50 years without a similar visit. Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba's minister of foreign investment and trade, made a trip earlier this year.

After leaving Washington, Rodriguez will be paying a visit to Iowa to meet Vilsack and tour some of the state's agriculture facilities.

The American business interests that hosted Thursday's event hope the recent incremental changes dealing with travel and trade will eventually lead to bigger changes between the two countries. Perhaps no change could be more impactful than Congress lifting the trade embargo that critics claim is outdated and blocking what could be a mutually beneficial economic relationship.

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“Five decades of unilateral sanctions have failed to bring reform in Cuba,” said Jodi Hanson Bond, a vice president with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the president of the U.S. Cuba Business Council. “Congress must reevaluate the reasons the U.S. implemented the sanctions in the first place and the consequences to the Cuban people.”

Cargill's Van Yeutter closed out the event by noting that a business relationship between Cuba and the U.S. should be a natural arrangement.

“The times have now changed,” he said. “This is good for the United States, this is good for Cuba, this is good for the world. There's enough problems in the world today, the United States and Cuba relationship certainly doesn't need to be one of those problems.”

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