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The Ag Agenda

May 2009

Cuba: It’s Time

Bob Stallman
American Farm Bureau
By Bob Stallman
President, American Farm Bureau

It amazes me that it is 2009 and Americans are still unable to travel to or do business with Cuba. It is the only country in the world where our government bans Americans from traveling. Unfortunately, a lot of opportunities are being missed for both business and tourism because of these costly restrictions.

I was lucky enough to visit Cuba in 2002. I say lucky because both the country and its people are beautiful. It also helped me see first-hand the disarray left on Cuba’s agriculture industry when the Russian troops left in the early 1990s and how Cuban’s are dealing with the aftermath.

My trip to Cuba shored up several things for me. First, Cuban citizens are good people and second, they need affordable food.

Missed Opportunities

During my visit, it was striking to see tourists there from everywhere in the world except the United States. To remedy this, there is legislation on Capitol Hill that would open Cuba to travel for U.S. citizens. Further, President Obama last month relaxed rules to allow Cuban Americans to visit their family, while easing financial and gift restrictions.

These actions bring us one step closer to increasing agricultural sales to Cuba, an important priority for the American Farm Bureau Federation. U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba have been on average $400 million annually since 2000. With the embargo lifted, we expect that number would rise to $1 billion annually.

While touring the Cuban countryside I realized that nation’s ability to produce bulk commodities had significantly diminished following the Russians’ departure. Other countries are taking advantage of the opportunity. For example, I visited a joint venture project between an Israeli investor and the Cuban government to grow oranges. This is just one agriculture example and there are plenty more.

Food: A Big Priority

Being able to feed its citizens is a big priority for Cuba. It is a poor country, but its people are by no means malnourished. Every Cuban is given rations for basic foods, such as milk and rice. When I was there, a campaign was in place encouraging average citizens in cities to plant plots of vegetables in order to help produce food.

There are many practical reasons why the U.S. and Cuba should be trading. The Cuban government allocates a specific sum of money to buy food and pay transportation costs for those imports. Transportation costs would be minimal between the U.S. and Cuba compared to Europe or Asia, which means more money could go toward feeding Cuba’s citizens instead of being burned up in shipping costs.

The time is now to open Cuba’s border to U.S. citizens and businesses. We are missing out on a great opportunity to see a beautiful part of the world and help feed some of the friendliest people I’ve ever had the chance to meet.