On March 1-4, the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba sent a delegation of 90-plus agricultural leaders to Cuba to meet with Cuban officials and farmers. 
In announcing the visit, the Coalition’s Chair, Devry Boughner Vorwerk of Minnesota-headquartered Cargill Incorporated, said it would be a “learning journey” to expand knowledge of Cuban agriculture. It will include meetings with Cuban business and government leaders, as well as interaction with Cuban farmers and agricultural cooperatives. The idea is to expand understanding of the Cuban agricultural economy. During the trip she said, “”The message we hope will get back to Washington is that we are a unifying voice that would like to see Congress act in 2015 and end the embargo.”
She also expressed a desire for a bilateral agricultural trading relationship with the U.S. importing such things as Cuban snuff, rum, cigars, coffee, sugar, seafood (lobster and shrimp) and encouraged a Cuban delegation of officials and farmers to visit the U.S. to explore those opportunities. Indeed, some believe that Cuba’s warm winter climate could enable Cuba to export tomatoes and other vegetables all across the eastern U.S. during the cold-weather months, along with its traditional crops.
On Monday the U.S. delegation met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez; Agriculture Minister, Julian González; Azcuba Business Group; the National Association of Small Farmers; and directors of other companies and agricultural cooperatives.
The next day the Americans visited farms and agricultural businesses in four provinces near Havana, including the El Trigal wholesale market, on the outskirts of the capital; the 30 de Noviembre Sugar Mill (Artemisa); the Heroes de Yaguajay Fruit and Vegetable Cooperative (Alquizar), and the tobacco cooperatives of Consolacion del Sur and Los Palacios (Pinar del Rio).
Significant U.S.-Cuba trade growth appears likely to come fastest in agriculture, the sector of the Cuban economy that has the deepest ties to the U.S. and that has been undergoing market-oriented reforms longer than any other on the island. After years of declining sales, the U.S. and mostly Republican states sold nearly $300 million of food to the island last year, primarily frozen chicken and soybean products, under a long-standing humanitarian exception to the U.S. embargo.
Such U.S. exports, however, have been hampered by U.S. sanctions limiting sales to a cash-only and barring U.S. banks from financing the sales. American trade officials and farmers are dreaming of dominating a food import market that could grow to $3 billion in coming years if Cuba’s economy improves.
The delegation included two former U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture (Democrat Mike Espy and Republican John Block); the marketing and development director for the Virginia Department of Agriculture; Missouri’s agriculture director and the spouse of its Governor, Jay Nixon, who was unable to go. Another member was Thomas Marten, an Illinois soybean farmer and the Zanesville Township GOP Committeeman. He observed, “As a Republican, I believe in trade for the betterment of all people. Prohibiting it is something that hurts us all.”
Afterwards, a Cuban researcher at the Center for Hemispheric Studies, University of Havana, Luis René Fernández, said that open trade with the U.S. is a matter of justice. Care, however, must be taken that the changes are not chaotic or overwhelmed by the U.S. interests.
On January 8th the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba, whose purpose is “to re-establish Cuba as a market for U.S. food and agriculture exports,” was publicly launched at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
The Agricultural Coalition’s Basics
To achieve this purpose, the Coalition’s mission is “to strive to turn Cuba from an enemy to an ally . . . by building trade relations with an honest appraisal of the past and a fresh look to the future.” This mission is based upon the beliefs that “the improvement of agricultural trade between the U.S. and Cuba is the foundation for building successful and enduring relations between the two countries” and that “an increased exchange of ideas, knowledge, capital and credit will benefit both countries.”
In implementing its mission, the Coalition will be “advancing a constructive dialogue in the [U.S.] on U.S.-Cuba relations . . . to end the long-standing embargo, . . . to build momentum that drives historical change . . . [and] to explain [to the public] the moral imperative of liberalizing trade between the two countries.”
Its website lists the following benefits for the U.S. of ending the U.S. embargo: enhancement of regional security and the global economy; improvement of U.S. travel, research and cultural and business relations; helping Cubans gain rights; assisting both countries in natural disaster preparedness, crop disease management and food security; improving both countries’ economies; and contributing to U.S. strength and Cuban sovereignty. There also is a similar list of benefits for Cuban citizens for ending the U.S. embargo. In addition, the website has comments about post-embargo and food security issues.
The 30-member Coalition is lead by Cargill Incorporated, a Minnesota company responsible for 25% of all U.S. grain exports, along with representatives of rice, wheat, barley, soybean, corn, oilseed, dry beans and canola growers and producers of dairy, beef, pork and poultry products; and other agricultural groups. (The complete list of the members is on the Coalition’s website.)
Devry Boughner Vorwerk, the Chair of the Coalition and Cargill’s Vice President of Corporate Affairs, said, “We will work with key stakeholders to build momentum that drives historical change.” The Vice Chair of the Coalition, Paul Johnson, is the Executive Director of the Illinois Cuba Working Group, which was created by a unanimous resolution of the state legislature, and an owner of a company that exports food products to the island; he also lived in Havana while working on a thesis on Cuba’s economic development.
Secretary Vilsack noted that American agriculture had a good year in 2014, but that an opening with Cuba would allow the sector to do even better. He said the embargo “isolated us from the rest of the hemisphere, and isolated ordinary Cubans from the outside world.” The new presidential opening to Cuba “will make our products much more price competitive and they’ll expand choices for Cubans shopping in Cuban grocery stores. Cuba imports about 80 percent of its food, which means that there is significant economic potential for our producers. It’s a 1.7 billion dollar market.” Secretary Vilsack also pointed out that the “president had done what he can, but we still have legislative hurdles to cross. Congress has to act to remove all the U.S. trade barriers that make it hard for [U.S. agriculture] . . . to sell in Cuba.”
Governor Nixon called the opening up of Cuba “a tremendous opportunity to strengthen our farms and our economy. The more Missouri goods we sell overseas, the more good jobs we create back at home—it’s really pretty simple. But right now, when it comes to Cuba, we are not on a level playing field, because of the sanctions.” He, therefore, called on members of Congress “to support our farmers, support the free market, and support this outstanding opportunity to strengthen our economy . . . . Now is the time for Congress to follow through and remove these financial restrictions. Lift the embargo and do away with the self-imposed barriers that are holding us back. In a competitive world we cannot ignore 11-million customers 90 miles from our country.”
Representative Farr said the President’s opening to Cuba “will be one of the great modern events of America. We will have torn down our iron wall.” But “it’s going to be very difficult” politically to do this in the U.S. Nor will it be easy politically for Cuba. But “Cuba is a well-educated country. Its people have a can-do attitude. They really like Americans.” Representative Farr also noted, “Every other country in this hemisphere has diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba.” They have chastised the U.S. for having this “archaic policy.” When President Obama goes to the Summit of the Americas in Panama this April “he’s going to be welcomed as a hero. Now we will be able to unify the hemisphere.”
On the other hand, Farr said, “The battle will be in Congress because of a really small minority of Cuban-Americans.” Therefore, congressional supporters of the Cuban opening are “going to start a new Cuba Working Group.” The American people and agricultural and business people need to “use their political voices to show” Congress that we need to go forward with Cuba trade and relations.
Representative Cramer remarked that the U.S. has “the opportunity to spread liberty, to spread democracy and to sell products. We can test it incrementally. We can open up little by little and provide assurance to those colleagues of ours in the House and Senate that might not be inclined to go all in. I have learned in my time in Congress that persuasion does not happen quickly. Almost nothing happens quickly.”
Representative Davis said he wants “to see communism lifted in Cuba so that the Cuban people can experience the same freedoms we experience here in the [U.S.].” Indeed, “increasing the trade we already have with the Cuban nation is going to allow America to invest in a Cuban economy that‘s going to free the Cuban citizens from the conditions that they live under now.” He also noted that for a long time he has supported “more normalized trade relations with the Cuban people.”
Senator Moran stated that the U.S. is a “natural supplier to Cuba. The cost of transportation from Europe to Cuba is about $25 a ton” while the “cost from the [U.S.] is $6 or $7. We have to take advantage of that.” More importantly, “it’s something more noble than the trading relationship or the selling opportunity. It’s about changing the opportunity that Cubans have in relationship with the government. A growing economy and standard of living creates the opportunities for the Cuban people to make demands [on their government]. There is a noble calling of trying to make the world a better place for all citizens of the world. Common sense says we ought to do this and morality says we ought to. Let’s make the difference and the change. This is a Congress that has the ability to do that.”
Senator Klobucharsaid America has “a historic opportunity right now to modernize our country’s relationship with Cuba – and it’s a moment we must seize. By increasing travel and commerce between our two countries, we can boost American exports to Cuba and create American jobs to produce the goods for 11 million new customers, while also helping to improve the quality of life for Cubans. I’m looking forward to working with our agriculture community and members of both parties to help build a practical and positive relationship between the people of Cuba and the United States.” She “hopes we can have a robust and substantive debate. Congress must avoid obstructive actions like blocking the confirmation of an ambassador to Cuba or the funding of activities regarding Cuba.”
As a supporter of the reconciliation of our two countries, I rejoice in the launching of this new coalition to end the embargo and to add their support for this reconciliation.
 On the day of President Obama’s announcement of the breakthrough with Cuba (December 17th), Secretary Vilsack issued this statement: “Throughout history, agriculture has served as a bridge to foster cooperation, understanding and the exchange of ideas among people. I have no doubt that agriculture will continue to play that powerful role as we expand our relationship with the Cuban people in the coming years” He added, “Today’s announcement expands opportunity for U.S. farmers and ranchers to do business in Cuba. It removes technical barriers between U.S. and Cuban companies and creates a more efficient, less burdensome opportunity for Cuba to buy U.S. agricultural products. It also makes those products far more price competitive, which will expand choices for Cuban shoppers at the grocery store and create a new customer base for America’s farmers and ranchers.”
 Missouri’s Democratic Senator, Claire McCaskill, on the same day as the Press Club event, announced that she will be going to Cuba at the end of February to assess whether Cuba would be a suitable market for Missouri agriculture. Another Senator, John Boozman (Rep., AR), announced his support of the Coalition and expanding trade with Cuba.