Another U.S. Event Promoting U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

On February 10, 2016, another U.S. event was held to promote U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. This one at Washington, D.C.’s National Press Club was hosted by the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba, whose launch a year ago was covered in a previous post. [1]

Now we look at an overview of its recent Annual Celebration Event followed by a re-posting of “Bipartisan Support for Ending the Embargo at a USACC Event” (Mar. 1, 2016) by Kaly Moot of the Latin American Working Group (LAWG), which reported on the event. 

Overview of the Event

The Coalition’s past and upcoming years were reviewed by its Chair, Devry Boughner Vorwerk, from member Cargill Incorporated of Minnesota, and its Vice Chair, Paul Johnson. Other members added comments in a discussion moderated by Anne Murray of Cargill; they were Kurt Shultz (U.S. Grains Council), Shawna Morris (National Milk Producers Federation), Chris Rosander (Sun-maid) and Ben Noble (USA Rice).

The Keynote  Address was provided by Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Members of Congress also made comments; they were U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (Dem.,MN) and Heidi Heitkamp (Dem., ND) and U.S. Representatives Cal Emmer, (Rep., MN.), Rick Crawford (Rep., AK), Ted Poe (Rep., TX), Rodney Davis (Rep., IL), Cheri Bustos (Dem., IL) and Jim McGovern (Dem., MA). [2]

State perspectives were provided by Todd Haymore (Virginia Secretary of Agriculture), Richard Fordyce (Missouri Commissioner of Agriculture) and Sid Miller (Texas Agriculture Commissioner). This discussion was moderated by Mark Albertson of member Illinois Soybean Association.

The Cuban Ambassador to the U.S., Josê Ramón Cabańas, offered the views of his government in a discussion that was moderated by Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute.

LAWG’s Coverage of the Event

In a time when bipartisanship in Washington seems harder and harder to come by, it might seem surprising to hear that Democrats from Massachusetts, Minnesota and North Dakota shared not only a stage but also a message with Republicans from Texas and Arkansas.

But that is exactly what happened at an Annual Celebration Event hosted by the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba (USACC), a coalition of U.S.-based agricultural organizations and companies committed to normalizing trade relations between the United States and Cuba. The wide range of speakers at their one-year anniversary event included industry experts, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, the Cuban Ambassador to the United States, and both Democratic and Republican members of the House and Senate.

Although the speakers represented very diverse perspectives, each one managed to agree on one key point: that the United States’ embargo on Cuba –which represents more than five decades of failed policy–must be lifted. Cuba’s ambassador to the United States, José Ramón Cabañas, stressed the fact that Cuba cannot consider completely normalizing relations with the United States while the “bloqueo,” or economic sanctions, remain in place.

Cabañas called trade the “flesh and blood” of a normal relationship between countries and pointed out the fact that only one U.S. bank is authorized to do business with Cuba. However, Cabañas did praise the progress that has been made in the last year, especially with regard to what he called the most important accomplishment: the establishment of respectful dialogue between the U.S. and Cuban governments.

Other speakers offered a variety of reasons why the United States would benefit from full relations with Cuba and an end to the embargo, including increased agricultural trade, possibilities for free trade, advancement of national security interests, and the promotion of human rights.  

Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) pointed out the rarity and power of the bipartisan effort, joking that it’s not often that he and Republican colleagues agree so closely on an issue. McGovern argued that a majority of American citizens and members of Congress, including Republicans, would like to see the end of the embargo. However, according to McGovern, efforts have been halted by a small but vocal minority of hard liners who promote the continuation of Cold War policies.

Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), a self-proclaimed incrementalist, called for doing what is immediately possible in this political environment, such as a bill that would permit private banks or individuals to use their own money to invest in trade with Cuba.

Many argued that the embargo had failed at removing Cuban leaders Fidel and Raúl Castro from power, and had instead impeded the United States from promoting human rights on the island through the tools of trade, engagement, and economic development.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, highlighted the wide variety of opportunities for trade and the mutual benefits for both countries, arguing that the embargo is unnecessary in this day and age, when normal trade relations could help improve diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana.

U.S. industry experts, particularly those in the U.S. agriculture sector, similarly argued that the restrictions imposed by the embargo currently prevent them from competing in the Cuban market where they say their businesses have many natural advantages, including proximity to the island and quality of goods. According to industry representatives, opening trade between the United States and Cuba could lead to mutual benefits for U.S. companies and the Cuban people, as well as the potential to share information and learn from Cuba research.

In order to advance trade between the United States and Cuba, Representative Rick Crawford (R-AR) promoted the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act (HR 3687), a bipartisan bill he introduced in the House to repeal restrictions on export financing and give producers access to Department of Agriculture marketing programs that help the United States compete in foreign markets. Congressman Crawford argued that the embargo has outlived its usefulness, punishing not the Cuban government but rather America’s agricultural producers (and other manufacturers) and the Cuban citizens.

While the speakers each presented different rationales for removing the embargo, as well as different strategies for doing so, all agreed that the embargo ought to be lifted.

Conclusion

I applaud the Coalition for its bipartisan, continuous efforts to seek an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba and a fuller reconciliation of the two countries.

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[1] Other posts discussed the March 2015 visit to Cuba by a Coalition delegation and its June 2015 letter to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee reiterating the group’s opposition “to any effort to restrict trade and travel with the nation of Cuba—including possible amendments to appropriations bills or the State Department reauthorization bill.” Any such restriction “would be detrimental to the U.S. agricultural industry and the future of U.S.-Cuba relations.”

[2] Previous posts discussed bills to end the embargo that have been authored by Senator Klobuchar and Representative Emmer. A more recent post reviewed the current status of these and other bills to end the embargo.

Launching the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba 

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

usacc

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.

The National Press Club Event

The launch of the Coalition featured remarks by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack; Democratic Missouri Governor Jay Nixon; U.S. Representatives Sam Farr (Dem., CA), Kevin Cramer (Rep., ND), and Rodney Davis (Rep., IL); and U.S. Senators Jerry Moran (Rep., KS) and Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN). (A video of the launch program along with text of the remarks is available on C-Span-3.)

Vilsack

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.”[1]

Governor Jay Nixon
Governor Jay Nixon

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.”[2]

Representative Sam Farr
Representative            Sam Farr

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 Kevin Cramer
Representative Kevin Cramer

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 Rodney Davis
Representative Rodney Davis

 

 

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 Jerry Moran
Senator             Jerry Moran

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 Amy Klobuchar
Senator                   Amy Klobuchar

Senator Klobuchar said 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.”

Conclusion

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.

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[1] 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.”

[2] 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.