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US Should Do More, Not Less, to Push Exports to Cuba (Randy Veach Commentary)

3 min read

Poultry and rice, two of Arkansas’ top agricultural products, are staples of the Cuban diet. So it was with great interest that we learned of President Donald Trump’s decision in late June to roll back some of the exemptions to long-held trade restrictions with Cuba that had been relaxed by President Barack Obama.

We believe Trump’s action to be a step in the wrong direction as it relates to normalization of trade with Cuba. There is no better diplomacy than making food available to another country. I have seen first-hand the great opportunities for Arkansas agriculture to expand our markets there, and also to go a long way toward improving the quality of life for the people of Cuba.

Organizationally, the Arkansas Farm Bureau has long fought for normalized trade with Cuba, the communist country that lies just 90 miles from our nation’s borders. ArFB, in fact, sent a trade delegation to Cuba in 2000, and I was fortunate enough to be part of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s delegation to Cuba in 2015, along with Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture Wes Ward and several others with agricultural interests.

While certainly no supporter of communism, it is worth noting that the U.S. has resumed normalized trade with many of our former adversaries, including Vietnam, Libya and Iran. The world’s largest communist government, China, is among our largest trading partners. Cuba needs to move closer to the current China model of privatizing more of their business, industry and agriculture.

The White House says it is still holding out for further decisions specific to agricultural trade with Cuba. But in reality, anything that leads us toward less interaction and involvement with the Cuban people is a detriment to U.S. agricultural trade.  We should be doing more, not less, to encourage agricultural exports to Cuba. In my view, just about every commodity grown in Arkansas would benefit if Cuba’s economy was bolstered by U.S. tourists. 

Because the U.S. is the only nation in the world to impose an embargo, Cuba is able to buy all the agricultural products it needs from other suppliers, but at an additional cost due to distance and time required for shipment. The leaders of the Cuban government have used the U.S. as a scapegoat for any problems that beset their country, citing our embargo.

From what I have seen in Havana, the living conditions are poor, with little opportunity for families to better their lifestyle. While there, we went to a local grocery story that was only about 60 percent stocked. That is why they are eager to encourage foreign investors to partner with them.

All is not lost on the Cuban trade front. Legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., (the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act) would allow agriculture commodities to be traded more freely with Cuba. U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., has reintroduced a bipartisan bill (the Agricultural Export Expansion Act) to lift restrictions on private financing for U.S. agriculture exports to Cuba. 

Recently, Crawford and U.S. Reps. Tom Emmer, R-Minn.; Kathy Castor, D-Fla.; and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., sent a letter, along with more than a dozen of their colleagues from the Cuba Working Group, to President Trump calling for the continued normalization of trade relations with Cuba.

It was very clear to me that we must move forward on normalizing agricultural trade relations with Cuba. While in Cuba in 2015, Hutchinson said it best in a speech to the Cuban delegation, proclaiming our need to look forward, not backward, with regard to Cuba.

There are great opportunities for Arkansas agriculture to expand our markets, and also to go a long way toward improving the quality of life for the people of Cuba, if the Cuban government will embrace human rights and migrate to privatization of their businesses.

It is our intent to bring a delegation of Cuban trade officials to Arkansas at some point, so that they can see the high quality and affordable agricultural products that we produce in Arkansas. As the agricultural trade restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba become more normalized, we want the Cubans thinking first about Arkansas agricultural products.

(Randy Veach is president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau, which represents more than 190,000 member families around the state. The nonprofit advocates for and promotes agriculture throughout Arkansas, the region and the country.)

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