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Why Midwestern farmers want to break the Cuba embargo

Why Midwestern farmers want to break the Cuba embargo
Washington Post
Wednesday, March 4, 2015 1:35am

HAVANA — Cuba policy sometimes makes strange bedfellows, which is how a
man like Thomas Marten, a burly Illinois soybean farmer with a bushy red
beard, had come to Havana to make a statement about the principles of
free enterprise. “As a Republican, I believe in trade for the betterment
of all people,” he said, as he rushed to another business meeting with
communist officials. “Prohibiting it is something that hurts us all.”

Printed on Marten’s business card was a large, undulating American flag,
and his title: Zanesville Township GOP Committeeman.

Marten is the kind of American whose views about Cuba may ultimately
lead to the undoing of the so-called Cuba embargo, 54 years after the
United States first imposed trade sanctions on the Castro government and
two months after President Obama announced plans to normalize diplomatic
relations with Havana.

Over the years, no country in the world has triggered more U.S.
government penalties and fines on private businesses than Cuba, and
Marten had come to Havana with nearly 100 other American farmers, farm
lobbyists and former U.S. agriculture officials looking to throw a
little weight behind a new push against those sanctions.

Calling itself the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, the group isn’t
shy about its interest in selling more American food to the communist
government, but its members also appear sincerely interested in helping
the island’s small farmers after decades of technological isolation and
the disastrous legacy of state-run agriculture.

The group met with Cuban government officials Monday, then planned to
visit local farmers and “get our boots directly in the mud,” said Devry
Boughner Vorwerk, the coalition’s leader, a Cargill executive.

The Cuba effort isn’t a new one for the farm lobby. But after Obama’s
announcement, it had produced a new enthusiasm, said the group, telling
foreign reporters and television cameras from Cuban state media that
supporters of the embargo in Congress were “a minority.”

Lawmakers have offered new proposals to lift U.S. trade and travel
restrictions on Cuba, but it’s unclear whether Republican leaders will
allow the measures to come up for a vote.

“Obama has set the tone for the termination of the embargo,” said Mike
Espy, former agriculture secretary under President Bill Clinton. Joining
him was John Block, who held the job under President Ronald Reagan.

“This is a two-way street,” Block said. “We want to help Cuban
agriculture and we want to sell corn and soybeans to Cuba.”

American food sales to the island peaked at more than $700 million in
2008, according to trade figures. That made the United States one of
Cuba’s largest trading partners at the time, despite the sanctions.

But because the U.S. sanctions limit the sales to a cash-only basis and
bar U.S. banks from financing the sales, Havana has increasingly looked
elsewhere to cover its import needs. Last year the Castro government
spent less than $300 million on U.S. food, mostly frozen chicken and

Cuba has stopped buying U.S. wheat entirely, and rice shipments have
plunged as well, the farm group said.

Instead Cuba has turned to Brazil, Argentina and other nations whose
banks can finance the food sales.

Despite the country’s ample land and favorable climate, Cuba imports
some 60 to 70 percent of its food, costing the cash-strapped government
some $2 billion a year. Much of what the island’s 11 million residents
consume through the government’s ration card system consists of imported
chicken, oil and rice.

“People think of Cuba as a tiny market, but as recently as 2010, it was
the fifth largest market in the world for U.S. food exports,” said Mark
Albertson of the Illinois Soybean Association.

The new Cuba regulations put in place by the Obama administration do not
allow the island’s farmers to export to the United States. Albertson
said one way to make American food sales to Cuba more competitive would
be to have “two-way” commerce, in which international shippers wouldn’t
charge extra for returning empty.

The inability to offer financing will continue to hurt American
producers, Albertson said. “Nowhere else in the world are we forced to
do business without being able to offer credit, so that will be the main
problem,” he said.

With its benevolent winter climate, economists say Cuba could one day
export tomatoes and other vegetables all across the eastern United
States during the cold-weather months, along with traditional crops like
sugar, coffee and tobacco.

Agriculture is one of the few sectors of the Cuban economy that has seen
significant liberalization under Raul Castro. But the government still
doesn’t allow farmers to freely import tractors, trucks and other modern
equipment, and Cuban growers say they won’t be able to significantly
boost output until the state gets out of the way.

Source: Why Midwestern farmers want to break the Cuba embargo | Tampa
Bay Times –

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