Rep. Crawford: Cuba on cusp of change, U.S. should help open up the nation

Talk Business & Politics

By: Steve Brawner

Cubans are a proud people entering a period of major social change, U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, said Monday after returning from his first trip there last week.

The outspoken proponent of opening up trade with Cuba traveled there along with Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-La., Arkansas rice producers and others.

In Havana, Crawford toured a farmer’s wholesale market for restaurants and vendors, which he said was “an absolute hive of activity,” though it lacked sophisticated economic tools. He stayed at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba and visited author Ernest Hemingway’s old apartment. Outside the capital city, he toured farm cooperatives not unlike those in the United States.

Cuban President Raul Castro, brother of Fidel, has announced he is leaving office in 2018, and the country is preparing for his successor.

“They are on the cusp of what I believe (is), and the evidence supports, major social change, cultural change, economic and political change,” Crawford said. “You can feel it. You can see it.”

Crawford’s eastern Arkansas district is composed of half the nation’s rice acreage, and Cuba is a huge rice consumer that imports most of its food and will not have the resources to feed itself even if it enacts market-based reforms, he said. Crawford is a sponsor of the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, which would allow Cuba to buy agricultural products on credit instead of cash. So far, the bill has about 25 co-sponsors, which is not enough for passage.

Cuban streets appear to be stuck in time before the United States imposed an embargo in 1960. Crawford said the cars are mostly American models from before that year, and many are in remarkably good condition. He even saw a Ford Edsel, the infamous model from the late 1950s that ranks as one of the auto industry’s biggest flops.

Crawford said he had several preconceived notions that “were pretty well shattered when I got there.”

“I guess I was expecting them to not be very friendly and not be very welcoming to Americans and just have a general sort of disdain, and that wasn’t the case at all,” he said. “In fact, it was right the opposite. They were very welcoming and open and extremely friendly and hospitable.”

Crawford said he had also believed before making his trip that the United States was being outmaneuvered in Cuba by Europe. While there is some European activity, those countries are reluctant about becoming too involved in Cuba as long as the United States isn’t.

“Again, like the rest of the world, there is a void when the United States is not leading,” he said.

Crawford was impressed by two Cuban achievements. Biomedical researchers developed a treatment for diabetic ulcers that has reduced the need for amputations. Also, researchers developed a vaccine that prevents ticks in cattle. He said the U.S. Department of Agriculture obtained some of that vaccine for testing, but had to go through Mexico to do it.

Crawford said Cubans are proud of their heritage and want to be treated with respect. He said they have a deep connection to the United States because of their family members who live here.

“As a culture, they’re much more closely aligned to us than, say, for example, the Chinese,” he said. “So we’re missing a huge opportunity.”

Also on Monday, the Engage Cuba Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit of top U.S. companies and organizations working to end the travel and trade embargo on Cuba, announced the formation of its Arkansas State Council chapter during a press conference in downtown Little Rock at the Capital Hotel.