WASHINGTON D.C., February 2, 2015 (AMG) — In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times this week, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, discussed some of the lucrative opportunities for American business offered by the recent easing of relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments. Naturally, Vilsack is primarily interested in promoting the sale of American agricultural and food products to the Cuban population.
Vilsack argued that American agribusiness would profit greatly from the lifting of the U.S.’s longstanding trade embargo on Cuba, saying: “[Cuba] is 11 million people, a $1.7 billion market, and we really ought to be dominating that market.”
The Secretary spent less time detailing the impact such a development could have on the Cuban population. Although trade with the U.S. would presumably give Cuban consumers access to relatively cheap, mass-produced American food products, it may also make it all but impossible for many rural Cubans to afford those new foodstuffs by undermining the Cuban agricultural sector.
Historically, after other underdeveloped and mostly-rural countries ratified free trade agreements with the U.S., their previously-thriving agricultural sectors were unable to compete with highly subsidized American agribusiness and deteriorated as a result.
The implementation of the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) in 1994, for example, drove some two million rural Mexicans from their farms after it introduced cheap American corn into the Mexican food market. In Haiti, 50 percent of the food supply is now imported -mostly from the U.S. and often in the form of humanitarian aid- thanks to a series of harmful trade deals signed in the late 1990s that decimated rice production there.
Both Mexico and Haiti – along with a number of other underdeveloped rural countries in the Global South – saw sharp spikes in their unemployment rates and steep declines in average incomes of their populations after signing free trade deals with the U.S.
If past is pretext, Cuba could be similarly negatively impacted by any trade deal that subjects its relatively insulated and highly regulated food market to cheap American agricultural products. In fact, several factors make Cuba especially vulnerable in this regard. While agriculture accounts for only around four percent of Cuba’s gross domestic product (GDP), it employs roughly a fifth of the country’s population.
Any large-scale shocks to the Cuban agricultural sector could seriously endanger the Cuban government’s ability to continue to guarantee the employment of those farmers.
In addition, rice and poultry – two staples of Cuban farming – would be specifically endangered by trade with the U.S. as both of these products are mass-produced quite cheaply by American agribusiness. The Cuban government should consider these realities -as well as the experiences of other nations that have undertaken trade with the U.S.- when negotiating any future agreements with their northern neighbor.
For the most part, the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba would be highly beneficial to the Cuban people. In the area of agricultural trade however, this does not appear to be the case.
Cover image: Adam Jones