Bringing US rice back to Cuba

The Hill

By: Dow Brantley

For generations, my family has been farming rice and other row crops in England, Ark. Growing up, I remember the special experience of planting a seed and seeing a magnificent crop spring up — a crop that was my family’s livelihood and the guarantee that food would always be served on our dining room table. While our town is named after a major international country, it was always a wonder to me to think that what grew in my backyard in rural Arkansas made its way all around the world. 

Today, I am proud to be the chairman of both the Arkansas Rice and USA Rice organizations and a champion of increased exportation of U.S.-grown rice throughout the world — including to Cuba. As someone who represents all sectors of the state and U.S. rice industries and continually thinks about how to best support our rice farmers, millers and the merchants and rice exporters both in Arkansas and across the country, it makes sense to support improved U.S.-Cuba relations and, specifically, an end to the Cuban trade embargo. 

 

Rice is arguably the best-positioned commodity to benefit from trade with Cuba, thanks to its ability to provide the Cuban people a high quality and nutritious product that’s also an important part of their diets. Cuba imports 80 percent of its food, and of Cuba’s agricultural imports, rice constitutes 10 percent. Cuba is the second-largest importer of rice in the Americas, and there was a time when Cuba was the top destination for
U.S.-grown rice.

But since 2008, there have been no imports of U.S. rice into Cuba. Due to an embargo that has proven costly to American rice farmers, Cuba is now buying rice from our competitors, with countries such as Brazil and Vietnam offering generous credit terms and continuously refusing to play by the rules of fair trade. Currently, Cuba imports about 600,000 metric tons of rice annually, valued at more than $300 million. And none of it is coming from U.S. rice farmers. 

Rice farmers have spent decades trying to explain to Congress that the embargo is a huge loss for our sector. It is why we have been at the forefront of the push to lift the embargo since the 1990s. We welcome and embrace the momentum of diverse stakeholders joining our efforts; we were proud to co-sponsor the recent launch of the Engage Cuba Arkansas State Council, made up of agribusiness, community and academic leaders committed to engaging with Cuba through diplomacy and trade. 

Restoring mutually beneficial, two-way commerce is at the heart of our industry’s efforts, and the movement is making history almost daily. Our work in states and in Washington, D.C., has allowed us to reach a tentative agreement for a memorandum of understanding between USA Rice and the Cuban government. This agreement will state that once barriers are removed, the Cuban government will resume buying U.S. rice. We will continue to develop our relationship with Cuban leaders and rice buyers in order to bring high quality, reliable rice quickly to the Cuban people.

With the prospect of a strong partnership before us, the rice industry, along with many other sectors, deserves to have representatives in Congress who can help us put an end to a policy that no longer works. The Obama administration has made excellent progress on the path to restoring trade with our Cuban neighbors, but we are now at the point where any further progress is dependent on leaders in Congress. We are lucky to have strong representation in Arkansas, from Gov. Asa Hutchinson to Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Rick Crawford, each of whom has come out in support of expanded trade opportunities for businesses and industries like mine. However, we need additional champions in Congress to continue this momentum to normalize trade so that Cuba can once again become a major U.S. trading partner. 

If we are successful in lifting the outdated and harmful trade embargo, we can ensure that an island of more than 11 million people can enjoy the same rice that grew in my backyard and in thousands of backyards across our state.

Brantley is the chairman of USA Rice and the Arkansas Rice Federation.