By: Jonathan Knutson
U.S. exports to Cuba will grow sooner or later. Engage Cuba is working to make sure it’s the former.
“It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” says Lee Ann Evans, the organization’s senior policy adviser. But the longer it takes, the greater the loss for U.S. agriculture.
Engage Cuba describes itself as the “leading coalition of private businesses and organizations working to end the travel and trade embargo on Cuba.” Membership in the bipartisan group includes the National Association of Manufacturers and U.S. Tour Operators Association. Engage Cuba also works with trade groups, such as the National Foreign Trade Council, to persuade legislators to change U.S. foreign policy involving Cuba.
Increasing U.S. exports to Cuba — long a goal of Upper Midwest agriculturalists — takes on greater national prominence now because of President Obama’s visit to Havana, capital of the island nation, March 20 to 22. He’s the first serving U.S. president to visit Cuba since January 1928, when Calvin Coolidge gave a speech in Havana to the Sixth International Conference of American States.
Communists seized power in Cuba in 1959, and the U.S. later imposed an economic embargo on trade with Cuba. Relations between the two countries have thawed in recent years, but the pace needs to increase, Engage Cuba says.
American agribusiness continues to lose market share to the European Union, Brazil and Argentina — a problem that could be rectified, at least in part, if Congress changes U.S. policy on ag exports to Cuba, Engage Cuba says.
Minnesota in the spotlight
Minnesota ag exports to Cuba “have considerable room for growth” if changes are made, with the potential greatest for soybeans and corn, the organization says.
Minnesota is among the 10 states studied in a report by Engage Cuba. The group is focusing its initial efforts on those states, which Evans says have the most to gain economically by increased U.S. exports to Cuba.
North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana are not among the 10. Engage Cuba expects to expand its attention to other states eventually.
The Dakotas and Montana definitely would benefit from greater ag exports to Cuba, Evans says.
Upper Midwest farmers and commodity groups have stressed a number of crops grown here, including barley and dry beans, appeal to Cuban consumers. Evans, who has visited Cuba several times, says both those crops are among the commodities of which Cuba need more.
Some in Upper Midwest agriculture have wondered how Cuba, which is strapped for cash, would pay for additional food imports.
Evans says Cuba has enough cash now to buy imported food from the EU, Brazil and Argentina, and that changing U.S. trade policies would allow some of those purchases to switch to the U.S.
In the short run, “We need to recapture market share,” she says.
In the long run, Cuba will generate more revenue through increased tourism, giving it more cash with which to buy U.S. food, she says.
By all accounts, Cubans needs more U.S. meat to enhance its tourism industry. But there are chicken-or-the-egg questions about how Cuba would pay for that meat without first upgrading tourism opportunities there.
Evans says while that’s a long-term consideration, there is only limited impact for now.
“People don’t visit Cuba to eat the meat,” she says.
Some in area agriculture have wondered whether anti-Communist sentiment, the strength of the Cuban-American lobby or simple inertia are hampering efforts to reduce U.S. trade barriers to Cuba.
“It’s a combination of those things,” Evans says.
Engage Cuba, for its part, is working to unite the voice of organizations that would benefit from greater U.S.-Cuban trade, she says.
Raising the profile
Obama’s trip to Cuba will help raise the issue’s public profile, she says.
Evans says, in advance of Obama’s trip, the U.S. on March 15 unveiled new measures to make it easier for Americans to visit Cuba, and also eased limits on the use of U.S. dollars there.
The key now is getting Congress to approve legislation reducing U.S. trade barriers to Cuba. Evans says the upcoming presidential election slows and complicates that effort.
“We’re really optimistic,” Evans says. “The more we can get Americans in any state to think about Cuba and what the benefits could be on both sides, that’s how we’ll eventually get this changed.”