Agricultural Ties Bind U.S., Cuba

Obama has taken concrete steps to loosen restrictions on U.S.-Cuba trade. Agriculture has been-and will be-the key driver of change.


Cuban market
Kotowski / Wikimedia Commons

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.

In 2009, Obama announced the U.S. would lift restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting or sending money to Cuba. Obama further loosened these restrictions in 2011.

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.

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  1. Uh, it’s pronounced Cuba, Linnekin. You mispronounced it all the way through your article.

  2. One thing U.S consumers could benefit from would be sugar.Too bad the U.S. government keeps the price far higher then the world price.This is to help the few sugar producers in country ,but,mostly it helps corn farmers,who,are truly welfare queens.

    1. Then there’s wheat,soybeans ,cotton and of course dairy.

      1. What about oil?! Arble garble blah blah!
        /anti-prosperity nuts

        1. One thing U.S consumers could benefit from would be sugar smokin’ hot Latinas

          1. Cuber’s greatest export!

          2. I stand corrected sir

          3. We already got plenty of smoking hot, generally crazy, Latinas. Currently dating a latina, except without the crazy.

            More would be great.

    2. The price supports for sugar are among the dumbest of the Federal government’s agricultural policies, a segment of police not known for it’s startling common sense. I have watched for years the spectacle of Environmental groups demanding more stringent regulations for cigar cane growers and processors in order to protect the Florida wetlands, when what is really needed is to drop the sugar price supports so that it is no longer economic to try growing the stuff.

      1. “cigar cane growers”

        I visualize a candy cane shaped cigar. . . . which allows one to see the tip as they light it.

  3. But the wingnuttery says Cuba is filled with godless commies and we should not trade with them!

    1. Whatever, turd.

      1. Once again sevo tries to drive the cockroach away by giving it sugar.

        Gosh, sevo! It’s amazing the cockroach keeps coming back despite all the sugar you are flinging at it! Can’t be because you’re using a strategy that won’t work. It must be bad luck!

        1. Maybe what he really wants is for some people to tell other people not to respond to him.

        2. I say we take off and nuke it from orbit. Only way to be sure.

    2. Nah, its’ mostly filled with people just trying to live as well as they cam like everywhere. The godless commies are a minority.

      1. Yes, but that minority are in control of the country’s government.

        Of course, maintaining the embargo won’t remove them. If it would, that would have already happened. The truth that nobody in the government wants to talk about is that the embargo was a “I have to be seen to be doing something” measure put in place by Kennedy (after he made damn sure he had enough Cuban cigars for himself), probably with Kennedy intending to replace it with something more to the point at a later date. And then St. Kennedy got martyred and nobody wanted to say that one of his policies was bilge.

  4. [Permitting] individual American tourists to “go to the beach and drink mojitos all day” … would require the U.S. Congress to act.

    Hey, libertarians — How do you like gridlock *now*?

    Seriously, FFS!

    1. On balance, just fine. The harm prevented by gridlock is more valuable to me than having the ability to go drink on yet one more beach in the Caribbean.

      1. This. Nirvana fallacy, how does it work?

  5. Contra turd, the left isn’t thrilled with opening cuba, as many have noted concerning the left’s romance with poverty, political prisons and starvation.
    But now there’s even more concern:
    “How Can Cuba’s Sustainable Agriculture Survive the Peace?”
    “The problem, say the leaders of Cuba’s green movement, is that opening up trade will flood the country with cheap oil and with it a return to an industrialized food supply. Recent subsidized oil imports from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez have led to an increase in the use of fertilizers.”

    What a SHAME! And here Cuba’s return to out-moded ag methods have been so successful that they feed, well, some of its population:
    “Cuba to Spend $2.2 Billion on Food Imports in 2015”…..ts-in-2015

    1. a return to an industrialized food supply

      The horror. People might have enough to eat and choice in what to eat.

    2. But collecting and handling night soil is so fun, hygienic, and green!

    3. Great link, Sevo, those watermelons who penned that solutions piece are living in an alternative universe. That’s some high octane derp/stupid, even from leftoids.

  6. But there has been improvement in food production, not from cow shit, but from economics: Cuba has discovered that people respond to INCENTIVES!

    “But perhaps the most important changes that led to the recovery of food sovereignty in Cuba occurred in the peasant sector which in 2006, controlling only 25 percent of the agricultural land, produced over 65 percent of the country’s food.”…..riculture/

    1. With large investments and more modern farming and economy fewer people will need to farm and more people will move to other industry. A more diverse economy would be a very good thing.

    2. ^This was a really good read. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Went to a small “organic” farm near a rural Cuban town last year. They have a nice niche business selling their meat and produce to local restaurants and also feed a local orphanage gratis. They also have a small restaurant on the beautiful grounds and feed you a 20 course meal with suckling pig and killer mojitos for less than $20. Not saying it would happen, but it would be a shame (and somewhat ironic) if heavily subsidized US ag imports put these small successful entrepreneurs out of business.

    1. Don’t Tread, they only exist because they are Party connected or giving kickbacks to the local Party hacks.

      I’m cool with the locavore shit foodies are into, but the masses of Cubans are not helped in any way by this.

      I’m glad you had a good time and I’d like to visit (I dig the music). Your anecdote is basically meaningless when most Cubans are under the heel of their government. Hopefully in the future more Cubans will be free to better themselves. I hope the end of the embargo will help this along.

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  10. Cuba has been trading with the rest of the world for decades. They have welcomed some European and Canadian investment.

    Unless American investment is somehow different, why should we expect and opening of Cuba to have a large effect?

    Canadians can’t invest in modern agriculture?

    I suspect that many areas of the economy are effectively shuttered to foreign investment, and that will not change.

    USA as an export market for cash crops might help some. Tourism will help a lot, as will increased remittances. Its important to note that the communists do indeed take large cuts of these off the top. So, while free marketer think they are “helping Cuba open up” (true) they are also “helping fund the Communist police state” (true.)

    So it will be a bit of a race as to see which can win. So far, the police state has been very, very much the winner.

    Though, often we forget the average joe who is better off with some economic benefit, even if he can’t express himself.

    1. Harun|12.27.14 @ 3:30PM|#
      “Cuba has been trading with the rest of the world for decades. They have welcomed some European and Canadian investment.
      Unless American investment is somehow different, why should we expect and opening of Cuba to have a large effect?”

      Well, the US is the largest economy in the world and it’s 90 miles from Cuba, so I’m gonna say it’s ‘somehow different’.

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  12. Lets roll on over it dude. WOw.

  13. Kennedy already tried that, Anondude, and it didn’t work out so well?.

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