Congress this week will be talking up the possibility of expanding agricultural markets to Cuba – a shift encouraged by U.S. farmers and some members of Congress, who see a $2 billion market just 90 miles from U.S. shores.
But if they’re going to be successful, one group needs convincing: The farmers who live in the state that’s just 90 miles away from Cuba.
“We don’t want to take agricultural markets away from our brethren from the north,” said Janell Hendren, national affairs coordinator for the Florida outfit.
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“But you can’t lift the embargo without also increasing imports from Cuba to the U.S.,” she added. “And we are very concerned with imports.”
The concerns of that one state might be overlooked as farmers in the 49 others clamor for new markets, whether they’re wheat farmers in Kansas or corn growers in Iowa. But Florida’s concerns reflect the difficulty of fully lifting the trade embargo with Cuba despite congressional support from some members of both parties.
At best, according to U.S.-Cuba experts, pro-trade advocates are in for a long battle. It’s one that could be derailed by presidential politics, if U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., or another anti-Cuba-trade stalwart takes the White House next year.
On Tuesday, a hearing of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee will explore the “opportunities and challenges” for agricultural trade with Cuba.
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairs the committee, which includes one member – Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. – who wrote a bill that would eliminate trade restrictions with Cuba. Introduced in February, the bill has six co-sponsors, three from each party; they include Rand Paul of Kentucky, who’s competing against Rubio for the Republican presidential nomination.
While people talk about the Cuban trade embargo, U.S. farmers already ship products to the island nation, something allowed under a 2000 law. But there are restrictions on how purchases can be financed – such as a requirement that Cuba pay on delivery or purchase – limiting completely free trade.
Shipments total several hundred million dollars a year; they hit a high of $710.1 million in 2008 before slipping to $291.3 million in 2014, according to data compiled by the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
The nonpartisan council said several factors were behind the drop, including stepped-up support for Cuba from Venezuela and China.
The thawing of U.S.-Cuban relations, announced in December, has loosened some restrictions on the kinds of financial transactions allowed between the counties. That could increase exports, although other financial barriers remain.
John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said shipments to Cuba were unlikely to increase much this year or next – unless the Cuban government thought it could gain political support by doing so.
“Everything we’re offering they can get somewhere else,” he said.
He predicted that legislation to lift the embargo won’t pass Congress during the Obama presidency, given other pressing concerns and the deference many members pay to lawmakers of Cuban descent.
If there were an anonymous vote, Kavulich said, there might be enough votes to overturn the trade embargo totally – but even that wouldn’t be overwhelming.
Carl Meacham, a former senior Republican aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who’s now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research center in Washington, also said it was unlikely that this Congress would end the trade embargo, though “the farm lobby is gaining traction.”
Beyond that, he said, the issue could create political havoc: “Though we are unlikely to see the embargo change in the short run, this issue may divide the Republican Party – split between pro-embargo supporters and the huge agricultural community, in typically Republican states, that wants reform.”
David Salmonsen, senior director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said his organization knew the difficult task ahead. “The whole idea of normalizing trade relations – well, that will take its time,” he said.
Earlier this year, the organization joined 30 other ag groups in trying to lift the Cuban trade embargo, seeking a “full normalization of trade relations between the two nations so that American business could have the same access to Cuban markets that so many other countries have,” the farm bureau said in a statement.
Jason I. Poblete, a former Republican congressional staffer who’s an international regulatory lawyer with Poblete Tamargo LLP, supports the sanctions on Cuba but said he’d been critical of both parties and previous administrations for their Cuba policies.
He predicted that there will be a lot of talk in coming months that Cuba is going to buy more agricultural products from the United States; Cuba might even increase purchasing for a while.
“And then they’ll stop,” Poblete said. “What ultimately happens is that Cuba will buy if it sees that doing so will result in some political concessions.”
While getting the overall trade embargo overturned isn’t likely, getting financial restrictions relaxed so Cuba can buy agricultural products on credit might be a more likely short-term goal of the new lobbying effort, he said.
“A lot of things have to happen for a certain sector of the ag lobby to get what they want – financing,” Poblete said. “Cuba remains and will continue to be a high-risk market. For people who want to sell to Cuba: Buyer beware.”
As for Florida farmers, experts say they do have a reason for concern.
“Florida’s growing patterns and Cuba’s are very, very similar: sugar, citrus, vegetables, tropical fruits, some fish,” said William Messina, an agricultural economist at the University of Florida. “All are important to Cuba, and all are important to Florida. So for Florida, trade with Cuba is really going to represent competition in a way that’s different than for the other 49 states.”
Hendren, from the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, said Florida farmers also were worried because of the state support that farmers in Cuba received, meaning their products could have a competitive advantage.
Beyond that, a weaker infrastructure in Cuba increases the chance that pests could make their way to U.S. shores, hurting Florida crops. Invasive species can cripple American crops, and Florida would be the first place hit.
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