WASHINGTON, Oct. 5, 2016 - One of the biggest reservations about increasing agricultural trade with Cuba has been that U.S. food won’t benefit the common citizen on the communist island. U.S. farming representatives are fighting back, though, stressing that U.S. commodities will end up on the dinner plates of the average person as well as provide a much-needed boost to U.S. exports.
Cuba imports all of its food through one government agency, but that doesn’t mean the U.S. should not sell its chicken, rice, corn, wheat, soybeans, pork and dairy to the country, and it doesn’t mean that the sales won’t benefit ordinary Cubans, said Doug Keesling, state support committee chairman of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba and former chairman of Kansas Wheat.
“I think it’s time to end the embargo,” Keesling said in a recent interview. “It’s a policy that hasn’t worked and the people over there need help. The people need food, so is it right for us to say we’re not going to trade with them?”
The U.S. does export some agricultural commodities to Cuba, but financing restrictions have given countries like Vietnam, Brazil, Argentina and Canada an advantage. As it is now, Cuba can only buy U.S. agricultural commodities if it pays cash up front.
The Senate and the House are both considering legislation to remove the credit restrictions.
But critics like Cuban-born Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of Cuba Democracy Advocates, say that the state purchasing agency – ALIMPORT – is nothing more than a tool of Cuba’s Foreign Trade Ministry and the Castro regime, which diverts food for political purposes.
“In most of the world, trade means dealing with privately owned or operated corporations,” Claver-Carone said at a House Agriculture Committee hearing. “That’s not the case in Cuba. In Cuba, foreign trade and investment is the exclusive domain of the state, namely the Castro regime.”
Keesling and others argue that other major customers for U.S. farm goods including China, India and Iraq also buy their imports through a government agency.
Eric Wailes, a professor of agriculture economics at the University of Arkansas, just got back from a trip to Cuba and he said imported rice does filter throughout the entire Cuban society. Foreign-supplied rice is in the stores where everyday Cubans get their government-sponsored rations and it’s also available on the secondary market, he said.
Right now most of that imported rice is coming from Vietnam and Brazil, he said, but if Congress would end the financial restrictions on sales to Cuba, the U.S. could do a much better job at supplying the country.
“Cuba could certainly benefit by having more access to higher quality, more freshly milled and competitively priced rice,” Wailes said.
As for wheat, Keesling said that right now imports from France and Canada are being used to make the bread and rolls that all of the Cuban people eat. It’s been five years since the U.S. shipped any wheat to Cuba, according to USDA data. And when those U.S. exports were flowing, they reached all Cubans, said Keesling, who said he witnessed it firsthand.
“I’ve been in the flour mills – there are six – and I’ve seen the wheat coming in,” he said.
The Cuban millers prefer the kind of hard red winter wheat they can get from states like Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado, Keesling said.
Cuba, with a population of just over 11 million people, may be a relatively small nation, but the effects of removing the U.S. credit restrictions would be huge, Keesling said. The U.S. provides between 80 and 90 percent of the wheat and corn imported in the Caribbean, he said, and there’s no reason American farmers should not be able to capture that big of a market share in Cuba. If that happened, it could add 50 cents per bushel to what corn farmers are getting now for their crops.
“Kansas just came off a record wheat crop – 464 million bushels of wheat,” he said and stressed that stocks are so high that elevators are filling up, forcing farmers to keep their crops on the ground.
The U.S. International Trade Commission said in a report earlier this year that the U.S. credit restriction on sales to Cuba has a massive effect on U.S. exports. The ITC said Cuba bought an average of 313 million worth of U.S. farm commodities 2010 to 2103, but also predicted that removing the credit restriction could more than double those sales.
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