Trust tops the trade list with Cuba
Colorado and other western agricultural producers may soon have another market for their products: Cuba. In December, President Obama announced a thawing of relations between the U.S. and its island nation neighbor that have been frozen since 1960. Even though there has been some agricultural trade with Cuba since 2001, the Obama thaw includes “expanded sales and exports of certain goods and services from the U.S. to Cuba.”
Right now, U.S. ag producers export frozen chicken, soybean meal for animal feed, and corn to Cuba. But, expanded trade could add rice, beef, wheat, and other commodities to the list. Don Shawcroft, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, said he’s excited about the possibilities.
“Anytime we can gain access to a country that wants our products, it’s an advantage for our producers.” But, he added, “it needs to be watched carefully to make sure our producers are treated fairly.”
Trade with Cuba isn’t new. In 1959, wrote Juan M. del Aguila in Cuba: “Dilemmas of a Revolution,” a thoughtful and well-researched analysis of the impacts of the revolution on Cuban society, U.S. investments in Cuba totaled $1 billion. Cuba sent 75 percent of its exports to and received 65 percent of its imports from the U.S. and was the number one market for U.S. rice exports. Now, U.S. ag exports to Cuba total about $350 million.
The change began when the new Cuban revolutionary government enacted the Agrarian Reform Law and began nationalizing and redistributing large tracts of land, most of which were owned by U.S. companies. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded by banning Cuban sugar imports. From there, relationships between the two countries disintegrated into the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and culminated in an official trade embargo, enacted by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, just 20 days before the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Since then, the embargo has restricted travel between the U.S. and Cuba. The United States has refused to send food supplies and other aid to countries doing business with Cuba, and has blacklisted foreign shipping and other firms that have ties to Cuba. Restrictions were loosened under the Carter Administration, tightened under Reagan, and finally codified in 1996 with the Helms-Burton Act.
Since 2001, the export of U.S. agricultural products and medical supplies, however, have been the only exceptions to the embargo. But, these transactions can only occur if Cuba pays in advance, which has had a crippling effect on U.S. ag trade. All of that is set to change, though, said Shawcroft, once the new adjustments take effect.
“Cuba will be buying on credit,” he said.
According to growingwisconsin.com,, the Obama directives instruct U.S. banks to develop correspondent relationships with Cuban banks, which will allow U.S. banks to confirm letters of credit, receive cash transfers from Cuban banks and develop credit card business with merchants in Cuba.
Shawcroft said buying on credit changes the parameters of trade and he questions the idea.
“What is the ability of Cuba to purchase on credit?” he asked. “For producers, cash is good but, if a producer is told that in 10 days the money will be in my bank account, what happens if it isn’t?”
Yes, there isn’t a lot of trust between Cuba and the United States and history is full of reasons why. But, trust needs to be built from both sides of the Florida Straits.
One way to increase respect is to consider what Cubans need and what they like to eat rather than demanding that they eat what we grow. After all, it’s their diet we’re looking at, not just how our companies can profit.
Cubans also have their own farming practices that could be useful in the U.S. After 1991, when the USSR collapsed, Cuba entered what is known as the Special Period. Overnight, the island lost 80 percent of its imports and exports, and the country’s economy, dependent on Soviet subsidies and oil, was decimated. But, Cubans are nothing if not resourceful.
Without access to petroleum-based fertilizers and chemicals, Cuban farmers were forced to diversify agricultural production. Out of the ashes of deep austerity came localized food production, permaculture, and organic farming practices. Journalist Raj Patel calls it “agro-ecology,” stating that Cuban peasants and scientists worked together, planting nitrogen-fixing beans, cultivating fields of flowers that attract pest-eating insects, and intensifying planting to crowd out weeds.
Cuba still imports most of its food but recently a team of scientists from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Matanzas in Cuba, found that the island now produces most of its fresh fruit and vegetables and a lot of its meat.
Granted, Cuba’s population is around 11 million — a small nation compared to the United States. But, perhaps their practices can help boost U.S. agricultural production regionally or in cities like Los Angeles or Miami. As doors open between our two countries, sharing ideas and successful practices is one way to increase trust, something that’s been missing for over 50 years.
Amy Hadden Marsh is a reporter for KDNK Community Radio in Carbondale. She spent several months in Cuba between 2001 and 2005.
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