HAVANA, Cuba, March 9, 2015 (AMG) — Late last week, an agricultural delegation from the U.S. arrived in Cuba in search of potential business partners. The trip occurred after several months of hard lobbying by American agribusinesses, urging the U.S. government to lift its long-standing trade embargo on the island nation. Though most of the embargo remains in place and can only be fully lifted through action by the Republican-controlled Congress, American farming interests are hopeful that that will soon change and are currently laying the groundwork for the future exploitation of Cuba’s $2 billion food-import market.
Besides emissaries from private agricultural conglomerates, the 95-member delegation included representatives from a variety state farm bureaus and a number of state officials. To add weight to the mission, several former US Agriculture Secretaries, along with Georganne Nixon – the wife of Missouri Governor Jay Nixon – joined the coalition.
The chairwoman of the delegation, a Cargill executive named Devry Boughner Vorwerk, told reporters that “the message we hope will get back to Washington is that we are a unifying voice that would like to see Congress act in 2015 and end the embargo.”
The lobby is not altruistic: While the U.S. government did create a humanitarian exemption to the embargo in 2000 that formally permitted the sale of American food products in Cuba, a ban on Cuban credit persists and seriously undermines agricultural, and other, trade between the U.S. and the Caribbean country. According to estimates by the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, U.S. food sales to Cuba fell to $291 million last year, a drop of more than $400 million from a 2008 peak.
“We understand our competitors are here — Argentina, Brazil, the Europeans — and our hands are being tied behind our backs by our own government,” Vorwerk lamented.
Possible impacts of a successful lobby: Absent from the delegation’s proclamations was any mention of the potentially harmful impact that increased agricultural trade would likely have on the Cuban agricultural sector – a significant source of employment in that country. A number of developing countries that have entered into trade agreements with the U.S. in the past have seen their domestic agricultural sectors and food sovereignty decimated by subsequent tidal waves of cheap imported American foodstuffs. It is unclear if Cuba’s experience would be any different.
These, and other, concerns were similarly out of sight when the State House Agriculture Finance Committee in Minnesota voted on Tuesday to begin Cuban trade promotion efforts. The resulting bipartisan bill allocates $100,000 of the state’s budget for the promotion of exports to Cuba. The bill still needs to pass Minnesota’s other legislative bodies to go into effect, but there is already widespread support for it.
“I would like to see us get down there first and expand the markets,” a Democratic Minnesota representative told reporters after the vote.
Lucrative opportunities for Minnesotan agricultural interests are central to the state’s push for increased trade.
“It’s not a question of if Cuba is going to be a big market,” Cliff Kaehler – the son of a Minnesotan cattle rancher who visited Cuba during a 2002 trade mission – explained, “but how are we going to capitalize?”
Cover image: US Department of Agriculture