Group seeks increased ag trade with Cuba - in small steps

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Oct. 22, 2014 - Critics say the U.S. is writing off a valuable market with its continued enforcement of a half-century old trade embargo against Cuba.

The embargo dates from the early 1960s, after Fidel Castro overthrew the dictator Fulgencio Batista and established his Communist regime. It was eased in the year 2000 to allow for limited trade in agricultural products and medicine, but only on a cash basis. And that commerce, which peaked in 2007, has dropped considerably in recent years, as countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Canada took advantage of those limitations to increase their market share.

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“It's a shame, really,” said Devry Boughner Vorwerk, vice president of corporate affairs for Cargill, who noted that Cuba, an island the size of Tennessee, has 11 million consumers and sits just 90 miles off the coast of Florida. “We could be doing so much more.”

Even on a cash transaction basis, U.S. food and agricultural exports, mostly corn and soybeans, went from $7 million in 2000 to more than $700 million in 2008, before dropping to about half that figure last year.

One organization seeking to reverse that trend is the Illinois Cuba Working Group, which includes officials from Cargill, the Illinois Soybean Growers, Chicago Foods International, Huron Commodities, Illinois Farm Bureau and Koch Foods.

Paul Johnson, the group's president, said he thinks attitudes toward Cuba and the embargo are softening but he cautioned that it may still take years before trade is normalized.

Indeed, in a poll conducted for the Atlantic Council in January, 56 percent of respondents said they favored changing U.S.-Cuba policy, increasing to 63 percent among residents of Florida - the home of the country's largest Cuban-American population -- and 62 percent among Latinos. The poll also indicated that a large majority of Americans, 61 percent, would like to see the State Department lift its designation of Cuba as a sponsor of state terrorism. The designation -- shared with Iraq, Syria and Sudan - further restricts financial engagement and penalizes people and countries engaging in certain trade with those countries. The survey included a randomly selected sample of 1,024 U.S. adults and was buttressed by additional results from interviews with 617 Florida residents and 525 Latinos.

Johnson, who runs his own exporting company to Cuba, said it was obvious that “space for negotiations is opening up,” but he acknowledged that “old habits die hard,” especially on Capitol Hill where he said he's trying to make progress in small steps.

 

The group's immediate priorities, as contained in a letter to Congress in September, are to establish an agricultural trade office in Cuba, to allow U.S. export promotion and assistance to U.S. agricultural commodities going to Cuba, and to allow U.S. food companies the ability to negotiate terms with Cuba. The group said that all of these goals can be achieved by amending a law passed in 2000 called the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act.

“We don't have to reinvent the wheel,” Johnson said in an interview. “We just have to expand the law that's already in place. If we improve trade relations we build confidence between both countries and allow both sides to tackle more complicated issues.”

Many still feel, however, that some of those “more complicated issues,” including human rights, may have to be tackled first.

In an editorial on Monday, the Washington Post referred to the mysterious death of democracy exponent Oswaldo Paya in a car wreck in Cuba two years ago and noted that Fidel Castro, now in retirement, had recently labeled as “slanderous” assertions that the Cuban government had yet to explain the death.

“A concession such as ending the trade embargo should not be exchanged for nothing,” the Post wrote. “It should be made when Cuba grants genuine freedom to its people, the goal cherished by Mr. Paya.

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