On November 11-13, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa Governor, visited Cuba.
In his meeting with Ricardo Cabrisas Ruiz, a Council of Ministers Vice President, they discussed international economic relations, the interest of the U.S. agriculture sector in the island and obstacles to trade between the two countries caused by the U.S. embargo (blockade). Vilsack and the U.S. delegation are on the left in the above photo; the Cuban delegation, on the right.
At a meeting with Cuban Agriculture Minister, Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero, Vilsack said the U.S. was “very anxious to establish a positive working relationship with Cuba and to work together cooperatively in a number of issues.” These included organic farming, agricultural cooperatives, the Cuban experience in biotechnology, confronting common pests and diseases and the impact of climate change. They also talked about Cuban procedures for fruit and vegetable export certification and field inspections.
The U.S. delegation also had a meeting with Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, and Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the Director General of U.S. Affairs at the Foreign Ministry.
Vilsack visited an agricultural market in Havana and was impressed by the fact that the vegetables and fruits came from hundreds of farms scattered throughout the city. “Urban agriculture is something that Cuba has long practiced and the United States wants to learn,” he said.
On a visit to two cooperatives, near the city, a member of one of the coop’s board of directors expressed confidence that Cuba’s new relationship with the U.S. will make life on the farm easier. The coop director said, “We believe that this represents something that will bring us improvement in every sense: production, better equipment, new tractors.”Vilsack, in turn, observed that it “was very clear that the farmers are people who have deep love for the land and the work they do for the citizens of their country.” He noted that they expressed their concern over problems with machinery, irrigation systems and tools needed to plant and harvest and the impact of climate change. But, he said, their creativity and innovation to maintain production levels were impressive.
In a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Havana Vilsack said that lifting trade barriers with Cuba was a matter of “common sense” and promised to look for ways to relax existing measures. “We have work to do to identify those barriers, understanding and seeing what kinds of flexibilities may be to remove them or at least minimize them.” The Secretary also complimented Cuba’s reaction to the recent U.S. problems with avian flu. “Unlike other countries which decreed a general ban on importing U.S. poultry, Cuba “faced the problem regionally, looking state by state, which is the focus of international organizations and which is based on science.”
According to Vilsack, the U.S. stands to gain a significant portion of Cuba’s agricultural import market. That market is about $2 billion annually, with the U.S. holding about 16 percent. Before sanctions were put in place, the U.S. was responsible for nearly half. “There is no reason why if barriers can be reduced and eliminated that we wouldn’t be in a very competitive circumstance,” Vilsack stated that a number of U.S. agricultural products could be attractive in Cuba, including pork, corn, soybeans and poultry.
Important in this regard, said Vilsack, was the need for the U.S. to eliminate the ban on trade credit on U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba. A bill to do just that, Vilsack mentioned, recently had been introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Rick Crawford (Rep., AK).
“Trade is a two-way street,” Vilsack said. “Consumers in the U.S. are interested in having a variety of products throughout the year and [U.S. agricultural] imports have reached record levels in recent years. One of the challenges we have when ending the embargo [blockade] is a container that comes with products to Cuba should return to the U.S. with Cuban products. This is common sense.” Such Cuban exports would be assisted by the U.S.’ having an office in Cuba for the Agriculture Department’s Foreign Agricultural Service and Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service personnel to facilitate technical conversations and addressing any problems in Cuba’s meeting U.S. requirements.
Moreover, Vilsack noted that Cubans have embraced organic agriculture, one of the fastest-growing U.S. food segments. Cuba has a strong organic sector because it hasn’t had access to chemicals and pesticides. “They had no other alternative but to be organic.” Vilsack emphasized that this is an opportunity for Cuba because only 1 percent of America’s land mass is committed to organic production. “There is no question the demand is there.”
Vilsack was accompanied by Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley (Oregon) and three Democratic members of the House of Representatives: Kurk Schrader (Oregon), Suzan Delbene (Washington); and Terri Sewell (Alabama) as well as other representatives from the Department of Agriculture and the Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Jeffrey DeLaurentis.
 Cabrisas receives U.S. secretary of agriculture, Granma (Nov. 12, 2015); Gomez, USA wants to expand trade with Cuba, but maintain restrictions, Granma (Nov. 12, 2015); US Agriculture Secretary talks with his counterpart in Havana, CubadDebate (Nov. 12, 2015); Gomez, Lifting the blockade is a matter of common sense, Granma (Nov. 12, 2015); Assoc. Press, US Agriculture Secretary Visits Cuba to Build Trade Momentum, N.Y. Times (Nov. 13, 2015); Minister of Foreign Affairs received the Secretary of Agriculture of the United States, Granma (Nov. 13, 2015); Doering, Vilsack: Cuba a great opportunity for U.S. agriculture, Des Moines Register (Nov. 13, 2015); Vilsack: Permanent USDA presence needed in Cuba, Farm Futures (Nov. 16, 2015).
 On October 6, 2015, Representative Rick Crawford introduced H.R. 3687, the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, on behalf on himself and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway (Rep., TX) and Representative Ted Poe (Rep., TX) with 11 other Republican and 2 Democratic cosponsors. Crawford said this bill “would repeal restrictions on export financing and give producers access to Department of Agriculture marketing programs that help the US compete in foreign markets. Further, this legislation enables limited American investment in Cuban agribusinesses, as long as US regulators certify the entity is privately-owned and not controlled by the Government of Cuba, or its agents.” Crawford concluded, “ I believe that agriculture trading partnerships with Cuba will help build a foundation of goodwill and cooperation that will open the door to long-sought reforms in the same the way that American influence has brought reform to other communist states.” (Crawford, Crawford Introduces Cuba Agricultural Exports Act (Oct. 6, 2015); Poe, Cuba Agricultural Exports Act (Oct. 7, 2015).