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Crawford: Cuban Market Could Boost Arkansas, But Leaders Must Act Fast

3 min read

Cuba imports almost all its food, especially rice and chicken. The island country’s dependence on outside food sources could provide a $36 million annual boost to Arkansas’ economy, particularly farmers in northeast Arkansas.

There’s only one problem: the decades-old agriculture commodities trade embargo that might not be removed until after the presidential election this year, U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., told Arkansas Business.

Crawford was among the speakers at the annual Arkansas Rice Annual meeting Friday at the Arkansas State University Convocation Center in Jonesboro. The event, put on by the Arkansas Rice Council and Arkansas Rice Farmers, also included sessions on water quality, farm profitability and women in agriculture.

Crawford said that, according to stipulations of the embargo, companies in Cuba can buy U.S. agricultural products but they must pay for them in cash. The congressman, whose 1st District includes Jonesboro, has proposed a bill that would allow those commodities to be bought with credit or by other means, he said.

“People are softening their position on Cuba … that’s good for us,” Crawford told a crowd of about 200 at the beginning of the meeting.

Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward said that when the markets open in Cuba, the impact could be dramatic in Arkansas. Studies estimate that agriculture sales to Cuba could add $36 million per year to the state’s economy, with most of that flowing to northeast Arkansas.

Arkansas and Cuba seem to be made for each other. Ward said Cuba, whose economy is centered around service industries and tourism, imports 80 percent of its food, mostly rice and chicken — Arkansas’ two primary agricultural exports. Arkansas consistently ranks among the top 25 states in total agriculture production, according to the federal government.

Crawford said nearly all the rice produced in the U.S. is grown in the 1st District, which includes all counties along the state’s eastern border. Ward said that if estimates are correct, Cubans could buy $30 million worth of rice from Arkansas per year.

Crawford hopes Washington lawmakers act quickly to loosen trade restrictions because the window of opportunity might be closing. Norway, Brazil, France, Spain and other nations are already testing Cuban markets, he said. Vietnam, one of the world’s top rice producers, could pose a threat, the congressman said.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who visited Cuba last year, said Vietnam and Brazil have gained footholds there because of their willingness to allow sales on credit. Hutchinson, the first sitting governor to visit Cuba since the U.S. and Cuba resumed diplomatic relations, has urged Congress to allow credit sales to Cuba.

In November, Hutchinson wrote to congressional leaders in support of Crawford’s bill and another by U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R.-Ark., urging them to act on credit sales of commodities.

“The current cash-in-advance requirement limits a potential market of nearly $40 million for Arkansas products alone,” Hutchinson wrote in the letter. “Allowing flexibility in credit extension is an important next step, and Congress can support enhanced livelihoods for Americans by moving the legislation co-sponsored by Congressman Rick Crawford (HR3687) and Senator John Boozman (S1049), which provide financial flexibility to sell American commodities to Cuba.”

Hutchinson has said there’s no doubt that Arkansas will be “a trading partner of significance” with Cuba. Crawford said Friday that while Cuba might still be an official foe to the U.S., it’s time to move forward.

“This could really help the farmers in our state,” he said.

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