Just 90 miles of open ocean and 45 years of bad policy separate U. S. farmers from a potential trade bonanza, according to producers, trade consultants and commodity organization spokespersons who would like to see Cuban trade barriers lifted.
“The U.S. trade policy with Cuba is ridiculous,” says Wayne Cleveland, Executive Vice President of the Texas Grains Sorghum Association (TGSA), on hand recently for a Cuban trade seminar, held in conjunction with the annual Amarillo Farm Show.
“When people are starving it’s our responsibility as decent human beings to help,” Cleveland said.
The United States has enforced a trade and travel embargo on Cuba since 1960 with sanctions against food, medicine and lumber eased by the U.S. Congress in 2000. The legislation allows trade in those areas but with restrictions, such as cash up front, no credit.
Many U.S. agricultural entities would like to see more open trade with Cuba. Experts say Cubans need rice, feedgrains, cotton, livestock, protein, dairy products and many other commodities readily available from producers no farther away that the distance from Lubbock to Amarillo, Texas.
“The U.S. farmer is used as a political tool,” said Dale Artho, a grain producer and Texas Grain Sorghum Board member. “It’s unfair. People complain about subsidies farmers receive and then our government wants us to be part of our national defense program. How is that fair?”
Both Artho and Cleveland have traveled to Cuba as part of Texas agriculture trade missions and say the Cuban people like to talk with U.S. citizens and want what humans across the planet want: to feed their families and to provide better for their kids.
“I have traveled in several communist countries,” Cleveland said, “and I have found two things that do not work: communism and embargoes. Communists I’ve met want to be capitalists.”
“The embargo is generational,” Artho said. “A grandmother who was 14 years old when it was put in place still blames the United States for taking her food away. People are people, all over the world. Unfortunately, governments are governments.”
Artho said the Texas Grain Sorghum Association works hard on trade issues.
“We’re concentrating on trade and trying to forget about politics,” Artho said. “Our business is feeding people.”
“This embargo hurts Cubans and it hurts Texans,” Cleveland said. “Food is a terrible tool for foreign policy and an embargo sets a dangerous precedent.”
A growing Cuban tourism industry fuels a demand for high quality food. “Tourism offers the biggest potential for the Cuban economy,” Cleveland said. “They are not likely to export commodities. They consume what they buy.”
Grain sorghum provides Cubans with a feedgrain that may help restore a near non-existent livestock industry. Poultry and rabbits may be the start because Cubans can raise them in their back yards quickly.
“They can produce chicken in 30 days,” Cleveland says. “To produce beef, they need a year.”
Cleveland said he’s seen a lot of pastureland in Cuba but very few cattle. After the economy collapsed, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union – Cuba’s primary trading partner, the population soon decimated the cattle industry.
“They ate them,” Artho said.
Building a beef industry is a goal, said Cindy Thomas, with the Texas-Cuba Trade Alliance. “Currently it is against the law to kill a cow in Cuba. Penalty can be 15 years in prison.”
Artho said Cubans are interested in buying breeding stock from the United States. “But trading live animals may be more complicated than trading dry goods. Some contracts require that a veterinarian travel with live animals, for instance.”
Artho said Cuba wants good genetics and good breeding stock to begin rebuilding a beef industry.
Cleveland said Cubans are curious about life outside their country, but are shrewd traders. “They want to buy cheap grain sorghum and cotton products,” he said. “But they are serious about trade.”
Trade and travel licenses “are not a big issue,” Cleveland said.
“Cuba is an interesting place but a different world. A Cuban citizen can’t conceive of going to a Target store to buy a bottle of aspirin. For one thing, they have no idea what Target is, and for another they can’t buy medicines, not even aspirin. They can’t buy a new car; they can’t own a house or land. Average salary is $10 to $15 a month and they get a ration on top of that. Cuba is stuck in 1957.”
Artho said the people are just people. “Cuba is a good country and they are good folks,” he said. “It’s interesting that Cuba was a founding member of the World Trade Organization and is now banned from it.”