During USDA's first official visit to Cuba since 1961, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack and a group of lawmakers last week met with Cuban officials to discuss the possibilities of U.S.-Cuba ag trade.
"This has been an interesting couple of days in Cuba," Vilsack said Friday, at the close of the trip, which included visits to port facilities and cooperatives.
"These conversations are designed first and foremost to begin the process of building relationships between the American people and the Cuban people," he said, "understanding that agriculture can act as a bridge in developing that relationship."
Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, Reps. Suzan DelBene, D-Washington, Teri Sewell, D-Alabama, and Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, joined Vilsack on the trip.
Of the challenges for trade with Cuba, Vilsack said credit continues to be an issue in addition to the continued trade embargo the U.S. still has in effect.
The embargo requires that the product be paid for in dollars, and credit is not available to Cubans purchasing American product. Cubans also are required to work indirectly through a series of third-country banks to obtain products.
Preparing for a future without an embargo was also a key element of the discussions last week, Vilsack said, indicating that he feels a presence of USDA Foreign Ag Service and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service personnel would be helpful to facilitate technical conversations and address the existing barriers.
Until then, Vilsack recommended that Cuba complete a detailed pest risk analysis to get a head start on restrictions for exporting products into the U.S. when the embargo is lifted.
The U.S. also has lots of room to improve its exports to Cuba, he said. Currently, the U.S. claims about 16% of the Cuban market for imports, but that number was closer to 50% before embargo.
He said there was room to be "very competitive" in rice, wheat, soybeans, pork, poultry and corn.
See more on Cuba and U.S. trade:
New U.S. rules needed if Cuba is to buy farm goods
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Cuba has room for U.S. ag goods, panelists tell Senators