Following a "learning journey" to Cuba March 1-4, ag groups are convinced Congress should end the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba.
The trip was organized by the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, a group that pledged support for lifting the embargo following President Barack Obama's December, 2014, announcement that the U.S. would seek to normalize trade relations with the nation.
Key farm and commodity groups are members of the USACC. About 95 people were involved in the trip, including several state ag representatives and members of the commodity groups.
U.S. Wheat's Assistant Director of Policy Ben Conner and Kansas wheat farmer Doug Keesling were wheat industry representatives.
"Our visit was an important first step toward a stronger relationship with Cuba," Conner commented. According to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Cuba is a $1.7 billion market, importing about 80% of its food. It's about 90 miles from the United States' southern coast.
Conner said the group was able to sit down and personally discuss trade issues with representatives of the Cuban government.
"We left with the distinct impression that lifting the embargo represents a unique chance to benefit people in both countries," he said.
According to the U.S. Grains Council, imports of U.S. grain into Cuba have been allowed in the past, though the United States' market share has fallen due to strict financial regulations.
USGC Regional Director of the Western Hemisphere Marri Carrow estimates Cuba’s corn imports from all sources have increased steadily since 2000, and in recent years have been about 900,000 metric tons a year.
"The United States was the dominant supplier until about 2009-2010, but our market share has slipped because our financial regulations make it very challenging for Cubans to buy U.S. agricultural products," Carrow said in a USGC interview. "Cuba was also an importer of U.S. DDGS but credit issues have impacted us there as well."
If credit issues could be addressed, USGC's Ron Gray pointed out that the U.S. is ideally positioned to trade with Cuba.
"Price matters and transportation is a large component of price," he said. "We have an absolute price advantage because of our geography, and there is every reason to believe that we would be a significant supplier of grain to Cuba. We also have a great Cuban-American population that will provide many bridges. At times in the past, the United States and Cuba were great partners, and we could be again."
While the U.S. has been unable to effectively trade with Cuba, competitors in the European Union and Canada freely sell wheat to Cuba, USW says.
"Since Cuba can buy almost anything from anywhere except from the United States, the embargo is effectively an embargo against U.S. businesses and citizens, not of Cuba," said USW President Alan Tracy.
Wheat producer representative Keesling added: "[Cuba] is the biggest wheat importer in the Caribbean – just a couple days away from our Gulf ports – and our own policies are keeping us from working together again. That's not good for farmers or for the Cuban people."