Grand Forks Herald: Heidi Heitkamp: Support Farmers, Remove Cuban Barriers

by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp

In December 2014, the U.S. made a stunning announcement: after more than 50 years of isolation, we would pursue a more normal relationship with Cuba. This decision was based on the logic that engagement is a better way for the United States to pursue, protect and represent our interests and values.

After just three years of restored diplomatic relations and a policy of engagement, we have already seen significant opportunities for U.S. businesses and increased American travel to the island. This has supported the growth of Cuba's private sector and major U.S. companies like Marriott, Google and Caterpillar have recognized the opportunity and now operate on the island. President Trump has preserved most of the policy changes that opened these opportunities, and I've been working to support North Dakota agriculture and jobs by removing barriers for our farmers, ranchers and other industries to export their goods to Cuba.

As the administration considers changes to trade policy that could be harmful to our farmers, I've been fighting to protect agricultural trade, which is the lifeblood of North Dakota's rural economy. When 95 percent of consumers worldwide live outside the U.S., we must strengthen our existing trade relationships and work to forge new ones — not isolate ourselves from potential buyers of our goods.

The enormous potential of the Cuban market is not lost on American farmers, but unfortunately, U.S. laws passed long ago still unfairly block most trade with Cuba, severely restricting the ability of North Dakota's agricultural producers to sell to Cuba.

A bill I've introduced in the Senate, the bipartisan Agricultural Export Expansion Act, would repeal the restriction on financing and allow American farmers to sell their agricultural products to Cuba on a level playing field. And in the next Farm Bill, I'll push to allow our farmers and ranchers to use the Market Access Program and the Foreign Market Development Program — the U.S. Department of Agriculture's existing trade promotion programs — to help reach consumers in Cuba.

Cuba imports $2 billion in agricultural goods annually. North Dakota alone could sell up to $45 million in goods to Cuba every year if the legal prohibition on private financing of agricultural exports to Cuba was lifted, according to a study by Cuba Trade Magazine. Boosting our trade with Cuba would create jobs, and be a much-needed source of new revenue for North Dakota, where farmers are struggling with drought and low commodity prices — and where we face a significant budget shortfall.

North Dakota farmers recognize that Cuba represents a significant potential export market. We produce many of Cuba's top agricultural imports, such as soybeans, corn, wheat, and feed grain. Cuba now imports over $200 million in wheat per year, but there is virtually no wheat trade between our state and Cuba, despite it being North Dakota's number one agricultural export. Cuba also imports $141 million in soybeans and soybean meal annually — our state's second-largest agricultural export — but none of it comes from North Dakota farms. In 2016, North Dakota farmers sold nothing to Cuba.

U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba have dropped every year since 2009 as a result of the onerous requirement that Cuba pay cash in advance for U.S. imports. Cuba instead turns increasingly to producers in other countries that could offer credit, which, as any farmer or exporter will tell you, is the way business is done. The current situation makes no sense: Cuba is a natural market of 11 million people just 90 miles from the United States, yet American farmers are unable to compete fairly to sell there.

Congress should be in the business of supporting our farm families and maximizing our export potential. I'll keep fighting to support our farmers and ranchers, and push for Congress to pass my bill to lift the burdensome restrictions and let our farmers sell to Cuba.

Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, represents North Dakota in the U.S. Senate.

Read at Grand Forks Herald