Among the hopes being pinned on the Obama presidency is one by American farmers and agribusiness that, at long last, meaningful steps can be taken toward easing the almost half-century-long standoff with Cuba.
Obama, the 10th president since the U.S. economic/trade/travel embargo was imposed in 1962, indicated during his campaign that he would be willing to open a dialogue with the nation just 90 miles from our shores.
“That's more than we've seen in the last 50 years from any of our presidents,” says Chris Garza, trade specialist for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Obama has promised to rescind the Bush administration's onerous restrictions on travel by Cuban Americans to visit family and on sending money back home to family members. Although U.S. agricultural interests would like to see the embargo lifted, Obama has said it will continue to constitute “leverage” in dealing with the Castro regime. He nonetheless has indicated a willingness to talk with Cuban leaders “without pre-condition.”
In pre-embargo days, Cuba was a leading market for U.S. rice and other agricultural products, and a favored winter travel destination for Americans. Since sanctions were imposed, the rice market has gone to the Far East, which entails huge shipping costs compared to rice from U.S. ports.
Farm Bureau's Garza says lifting the embargo would be good news for Cubans and the struggling U.S. economy — “an opportunity for us not only to create better relationships with Cuba, but also to improve the overall financial situation in the U.S.
“We have to look at every opportunity to rebuild our economy, and one of those ways is trade. Why shouldn't we be allowed to help our economy by trading with Cuba, just as we do with China?”
Currently, the market value of U.S. trade with Cuba is between $400 million and $500 million, Garza says. “Economic studies indicate it could easily be a $1 billion market for U.S. agricultural products.”
While American farmers are currently allowed to sell to Cuba, restrictions imposed on those sales by the Bush administration make such transactions a bureaucratic nightmare.
To purchase U.S. ag products, Cuba must pay cash in advance and jump through complicated letter of credit hoops involving multiple banks. So much as a comma in the wrong place can necessitate starting over, sources say.
“This increases the cost of doing business with Cuba,” Garza says. We want to remove those cost factors, and treat Cuba as we would any of our other trading partners.
“What we see with the Obama administration is that they're at least willing to reach out to the Cubans to find out if there is a way to actually get beyond this embargo, and through that we can take the steps of slowly chipping away at the restrictions that are in place.”
Legislation is already aborning for the new Congress aimed at removing restrictions on trade with and travel to Cuba. But many who have watched this drama over four-plus decades say a lot will still hinge on how willing the Castro regime is to work with the U.S. on meaningful reforms.