Something to Cluck About: Tennessee's Poultry Exports to Cuba 

By MICHAEL EDWARD MILLER 

WUTC Chattanooga NPR

Bob Corker: Hey guys, this is Bob Corker. I appreciate—I appreciate all of you tuning in, and, I look forward to talking to you.

Michael Edward Miller: Welcome to Around and About Chattanooga. I’m your host, Michael Edward Miller. So, this is Senator Bob Corker.

Bob Corker: Yesterday I was elected as the chairman of the [inaudible] committee here in the Senate.

Michael Edward Miller: Really terrible audio quality there. I apologize. But the point is, the reason I’m playing this right now is it’s relevant to what we’re talking about in this segment. This is a recording of a press conference call from about a year ago. Corker had just become chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The subject of Cuba came up during this conference call. A reporter asked Corker how effective he thought the trade embargo was.

Bob Corker: Well obviously the—the policy we’ve had in place, uh, in Cuba since 1962 has not yielded a—a result that we had hoped it would yield. I mean I think that’s pretty apparent.  

Michael Edward Miller: So, the embargo-- not exactly a smashing success over the past fifty-plus years. But, here’s something surprising about it—or at least it was surprising to me. I don’t know. Maybe you already knew it. The embargo isn’t a total embargo. It turns out American businesses are allowed to export certain goods to the island. Food and medicine are a couple of types of goods Americans can sell to Cuba. And Tennessee businesses are doing that. They’re exporting food, specifically. You know what Tennessee’s biggest export to Cuba is? Chicken leg quarters.

Adelina Bryant: Tennessee is obviously a producer of many agricultural products.  It just so happens that chicken leg quarters are the most—one of the most in-demand commodities being imported into Cuba, right now.

Michael Edward Miller: That’s Adelina Bryant, the director of Policy and Advocacy for Engage Cuba, a non-profit group that opposes the embargo. The group says, if the Cuban embargo were lifted, if we could export even more, it could be an economic boon for Tennessee.  I spoke with her about that, but before we got on the subject of the embargo I just had to know more about those chickens. Why chicken leg quarters specifically? Do—Do you know a specific reason for that?

 Adelina Bryant: There’s actually a really funny reason for that. Ever since the "special period", in Cuba, they’re not allowed to kill their own cows. So beef is, not really a product consumed very much on the island. And I think that’s the reason why you see, a higher demand for poultry in Cuba than in,  other countries, even though poultry is widely consumed all over Latin America.

Michael Edward Miller: How big is this for Tennessee? How much economic benefit are we seeing from exporting chicken leg quarters to Cuba?

Adelina Bryant: You know I don’t have the the actual broken-down numbers for chicken or poultry specifically.

Michael Edward Miller: Okay, okay, then just yeah, just in general?

Adelina Bryant: But in general, Tennessee agribusiness is only exporting $1.3 million in goods to Cuba, which is really low when you compare it to its neighbor, who doesn’t have an embargo on it.  Tennessee is selling $117 million of agribusiness to the Dominican Republic. So, you know, the potential for Tennessee to do over $100 million more business with Cuba if there were no embargo is huge.

Michael Edward Miller: How have the exports from Tennessee to Cuba changed over the last few years? Are we exporting more, are we exporting less?

Adelina Bryant: Across the board, less. And that—that’s across the United States, too. The problem is that, even though agriculture operates under an exemption in the embargo, they’re limited in their attractiveness because U.S. agriculture is not allowed to offer financing—public or private—to the island, because of the embargo. So, for instance, when you go sell to the Dominican Republic, you can maybe extend them a six-month, credit offer,  for the goods, whereas, in Cuba, you’re required to pay cash for U.S. suppliers; and, therefore, [inaudible] then go and turn to countries, like Brazil, who are willing to offer them credit. So, it really puts our agriculture and our agribusiness at a disadvantage.

Michael Edward Miller: So, you’re part of a non-profit advocacy group, Engage Cuba. Why do you all care about this? What does Engage Cuba stand to gain from increased trade with Cuba?

Adelina Bryant: We don’t personally stand to gain anything. We’re basically at the end of the day a campaign. We’re an advocacy group that saw this policy change as a necessary, action in order to further U.S. policy in the region and also help our, national producers and commodity, … businesses across the board. So, it’s not—it’s also political. It’s political and economic, and, you know, we see an opportunity here to, may—do something historic. And, at the end of the day, if-- when we’re successful, we’ll kind of pack up our bags and move on to the next thing.

Michael Edward Miller: How are you funded?

 Adelina Bryant: We are funded [inaudible] , and by private philanthropists and by members companies that support us, and you can find all those on our website where we post them.  

Michael Edward Miller: The trade embargo, we were just talking about this, you know, until I started looking into this I just assumed the trade embargo banned all trade between the U.S. and Cuba. Now, I’m finding out, “No, we’ve still got this agribusiness,” that we’ve been talking about now. Is that the only thing we’re currently trading with Cuba? Wh—is there anything else the U.S. is trading with Cuba right now?

Adelina Bryant: So, I know that Tennessee also has a lot of biomedical, interests, in the state as well. And there’s, actually, a medical exemption that was passed along with the agricultural exemption. So, medicine and… agriculture are both allowed to be sold,  to Cuba; however, they both operate under that same restriction that no, financing may be offered. And there is a bill to fix that. In fact, Congressman Fincher, from Tennessee, is a sponsor of the agriculture bill which would allow for U.S. agriculture to, extend private financing and help them be more competitive on the island, and, you know, we’re obviously very grateful to Congressman Fincher for his leadership there.

Michael Edward Miller: Thinking of the 2016 presidential campaign: Marco Rubio has been a leading opponent of increasing trade with Cuba. You know, he’s saying that humanitarian rights haven’t really improved in Cuba, since the normalization last year. How would you respond to that? How would you respond to people who say we really shouldn’t be doing more trade with Cuba?  

Adelina Bryant: From Engage Cuba’s perspective and from many of our partners, both in the economic sector and otherwise, you know, we feel that the embargo has been an impediment to change on the island. And, it’s something that, across the board, polling has shown recently that Cubans support overturning the embargo because they see it as an impediment to their rights to, you know, engage in business and be entrepreneurs and have access to a wholesale market. And we think that by lifting the embargo and allowing American businesses to directly support these entrepreneurs, would absolutely be an improvement to, to Cubans on the island, and that’s why we support the change.

Michael Edward Miller: Addie Bryant, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Adelina Bryant: Absolutely, thank you so much for having me on, Mike.