Public protests in communist Cuba are rare, so when people recently took to the streets to demonstrate in protest against the government, the world took notice and America’s ag sector is still weighing the implications for trade between the two countries.
While Dalton Henry, vice president of policy for the U.S. Wheat Associates, says it’s just too early to gauge whether the unrest hurts or helps advocates for allowing increased ag trade, Peter Bachmann, vice president of international trade policy for the USA Rice Federation, says he’s hopeful.
“We are encouraged that something different is happening,” said Bachmann. “Because of lockdowns and food shortages, the Cubans are demanding change. The U.S. has to support these people who are standing up to their government and want freedom from communism.”
The unrest from within Cuba has united governments — including the U.S. — from around the globe to denounce the Cuban regime’s harsh treatment of protesters.
“We urge the Cuban government to heed the voices and demands of the Cuban people,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, together with foreign ministers of 20 nations, said in a joint statement issued July 25. “The international community will not waver in its support of the Cuban people and all those who stand up for the basic freedoms all people deserve.”
Still, it’s unclear if the recent turmoil will push the Biden administration to reach out and support policy changes that would improve the lives of Cubans.
“It’s tough to see how this situation plays out,” says Henry, who says the Cuban protests are more of a complicating factor than a catalyst for change. “It certainly makes things more challenging."
President Joe Biden still has not taken the steps many were hoping he would to continue the Obama administration’s push to improve relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Biden hasn’t even rolled back any of the Trump administration’s travel or other restrictions on Cuba.
USW, along with many farm groups, advocates that one of the best things the White House and Congress could do is end restrictions that stop the U.S. from supplying Cubans with farm commodities like wheat, rice and corn.
“That’s been our argument for a long time,” Dalton said about the point of view that the best way to support the Cuban people is to help feed them.
Cuba imports about $2 billion worth of ag commodities per year, but the U.S. gets only about 10% of that business even though the two countries are separated by only about 90 miles of water.
“The Cuban people want our goods, especially U.S. rice, which is easily the safest, most efficient and most sustainable food supply in all of the world,” said Louisiana rice merchant Scott Franklin in a statement released by USA Rice. “This is the last trade frontier for the U.S., and its significance cannot be overstated.”
The U.S. was the largest foreign supplier of rice to Cuba before the embargo was put in place in 1960, but now “U.S. rice exports to Cuba are essentially zero,” says USA Rice.
Now ordinary Cubans, many of whom the State Department says were beaten or arrested, have taken a bold step and the U.S. has to back them up with policies, says Bachmann.
“If the U.S. comes in heavy-handed and tries to tell (Cubans) what to do, that’s probably not going to help in the long run,” says Bachmann. “The change has to come from within and this is the first time in decades that there’s been this Cuba-driven demand for change.”
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U.S. politics surrounding policy change with Cuba is polarizing and has been for decades, especially in the swing state of Florida — home to the anti-communist passion of many Cuban-Americans.
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who has been outspoken on Cuba policy, accused the Biden administration of supporting “engagement” with the Cuban government during a recent appearance on Fox News, and criticized trips to the country by lawmakers. And now Rubio, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., and other lawmakers are demanding an audience with Biden “to discuss how Congress and your Administration can work together to bring an end to the oppressive communist regime in Havana and liberate the Cuban people,” according to a letter they sent to Biden July 26.
But it is engagement with Cuba that many farm groups want. Some of the biggest farm groups in the country signed on to a letter last month in support of legislation by Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., that would allow for private financing of U.S. ag exports to Cuba and permit U.S. companies to set up agricultural businesses in Cuba.
Congress allowed U.S. farmers to once again export to Cuba when it passed the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, but the law also required Cubans to pay cash in advance for U.S. ag commodities, which puts the U.S. at a severe disadvantage to suppliers from Europe, Asia and South America.
Cuba imports about 30 million bushels of wheat every year, but none of it is coming from U.S. fields. Instead, it’s mostly European and Canadian producers that supply Cuba’s demand.
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