Last week, President Obama announced plans for a historic reversal of course in relations with Cuba. Diplomatic relations would be restored after more than 50 years. Many restrictions on travel and trade would be lifted.
The announcement was the latest in a gradual relaxing of restrictions on the rights of U.S. citizens to travel to and trade with Cuba.
These changes likely wouldn't have been possible without a thawing in agricultural trade that can be traced back to the 1990s.
It was then that former Illinois governor George Ryan helped push for trade between his state and Cuba. He organized a Cuban visit that focused on agricultural exchanges. Ryan says he supports the recent changes.
The significance of the president's move can't be understated. It represents the biggest step taken by Obama—or any president—since the U.S. and Cuba severed ties in 1961.
What form will increased trade take in Cuba? Tourism will certainly see a boost. Still, despite the fact few Americans travel to the country—thanks to a near-blanket ban on travel—Cuba's tourism industry is well-established. It draws tourists from Canada, Europe, and elsewhere.
Rather than in tourism, then, the biggest boost in trade would—again—likely be seen in Cuba's moribund agricultural sector.
"With fewer restrictions and greater investment, agriculture could expand its capacity and serve international markets," read a recent CNN commentary.
Poor or nonexistent infrastructure and tight regulations mean that Cuba imports most of its food. That's true despite attempts by Cuba's socialist government to restart the agricultural sector in recent years.
The New York Times reported in 2012 that President Raul Castro had "made agriculture priority No. 1 in his attempt to remake the country."
Castro's effort had failed, the Times noted, thanks to a combination of "waste, poor management, policy constraints, transportation limits, theft and other problems."
The Cuban state's unwillingness to relax its stranglehold on the food economy produced tragicomic results.
"In 2009, hundreds of tons of tomatoes, part of a bumper crop that year, rotted because of a lack of transportation by the government agency charged with bringing food to processing centers," reported the Times.
That was then.
"Even in the industries that have seen the most change since Mr. Castro became president in 2006, like agriculture, results have been tethered by the state," according to a Times story last week. The same report notes farmers are often forced to transport food by bicycle.
The historic changes announced last week can't solve all of Cuba's problems. But they should have an impact.
"The expansion will seek to empower the nascent Cuban private sector," said President Obama in announcing the change, with permissible U.S. exports, for now, to include "agricultural equipment for small farmers."
And that's not all. U.S. farmers will also benefit from the changes.
USDA secretary Tom Vilsack said the new policy "expands opportunity for U.S. farmers and ranchers to do business in Cuba."
U.S. states already export hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural products to Cuba, though those numbers have dwindled in recent years. A White House blog post on the potential benefits of U.S.-Cuba agricultural trade include links to dozens of articles and supportive editorials around the country that point to a predicted uptick in exports of U.S. beef, chicken, rice, corn, soybeans, and other agricultural products.
And U.S. consumers will also see benefits. For example, returning American travelers will be able to bring back up to $100 of alcohol from the island.
Any increase in agricultural trade between Cuba and the U.S. would be good for Cubans and Americans alike. The changes announced by Obama are an excellent start.
More lasting changes—like those that would permit individual American tourists to "go to the beach and drink mojitos all day" or those that would address former President Fidel Castro's theft of property owned by Americans after the Cuban Revolution—would require the U.S. Congress to act. Let's hope they do just that.