Small Chance of Liberalized U.S. Rules for Agricultural Exports to Cuba  

The U.S.-China trade war initiated by the Trump Administration has had a significant negative impact on U.S. agricultural exports to that country. In response, some U.S. senators and representatives have been pressing for relaxation of U.S. restrictions on such exports to Cuba. These advocates include Senators Heidi Heitkamp (Dem., ND), Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) and Tine Smith (Dem., MN)  and Representatives Collin Peterson (Dem., MN) and Tom Emmer, (Rep., MN). [1]

In addition, a bipartisan group of over 60 agricultural associations, businesses and elected officials from 17 states have urged the two congressional agriculture committees to include in the pending farm bills a provision to remove restrictions on private financing of U.S. agricultural exports to the island. [2]

This week Cuba President Miguel Diaz-Canel in New York City for a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly met separately with a bipartisan and bicameral group of Members of the U.S. Congress, including Sen. Ron Wyden (Dem., OR), Rep. Karen Bass (Dem., CA), Rep. Kathy Castor (Dem., FL), Rep. Robin Kelly (Dem., IL) Rep. Gregory Meeks (Dem., NY) and Rep. Roger Marshall (Rep., KA). Rep. Marshall told AG NET that the U.S. “can and should be Cuba’s number one supplier of commodities like sorghum, soy, wheat, and corn.”

But legislation to expand such exports by allowing credit sales to Cuba did not make it into the pending farm bills in both houses of the Congress, and most observers and participants think chances are nil of such a provision being added. And Senator Heitkamp’s provision in the Senate bill to allow the U.S. Department of Agriculture to use federal funds to develop the Cuban market could easily be cut from the bill in a conference committee.

The reason has more to do with politics than economics, according to Ted Piccone, a specialist in Latin American issues at the Brookings Institution. “It basically comes down to domestic politics in Florida,” Piccone said.

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[1] Spencer, Little appetite for effort to bolster ag trade with Cuba, StarTribune (Sept. 21, 2018).

[2] Engage Cuba, Agriculture Groups Support Farm Bill Cuba Provision that Would Save $690 Million (Sept. 5, 2018).

Congressional Delegation Visits Cuba

A delegation of six U.S. senators and representatives, all Democrats, visited Cuba from February 17 through 21. They were Senators Patrick Leahy (VT),  Gary Peters (MI) and Ron Wyden (OR) plus Representatives Jim McGovern (MA), Kathy Castor (FL) and Susan Davis (CA). [1]

Leahy, the leader of the group, announced that the purpose of the trip was “to meet with U.S. and Cuban officials, officials of other governments, and Cubans in the emerging private sector to discuss: the presidential transition in Cuba; U.S. and Cuban investigations of health incidents involving U.S. government personnel in Cuba; cooperation on maritime security, search-and-rescue, narcotics and human trafficking, and migration issues; the impact of the withdrawal of U.S. Embassy and Cuban Embassy personnel and of revised Treasury Department regulations on U.S.-Cuban relations; and opportunities for public health, law enforcement, scientific, environmental, commercial, educational, cultural, and other engagement with Cubans.”

Meeting at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry

On February 20 they met with the Director General of the United States of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Cárlos Fernández de Cossío.

They discussed, among other topics, the medical problems of certain U.S. diplomats that occurred in Cuba. Cossío emphasized that  there was no evidence of attacks on the diplomats and Cuba’s difficulties of carrying out a rigorous investigation.

Meeting with President Raúl Castro

On February 20 the delegation also met with President Raúl Castro, who was joined by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and Director General Cossio. Below is the official photograph of the meeting. The Cuban release about this event merely stated, “During the meeting they exchanged about matters of interest to both countries.”

Other Activities

The delegation met with Cuban entrepreneurs who said Trump’s Cuba policy was hurting their businesses. Surprisingly there have been no reports that there was discussion of last year’s actions by the Cuban government to curtail the growth of the private sector or its new proposed regulations to impose even more onerous restrictions on that sector that apparently were leaked to the public the day after the delegation left the island as discussed in a prior post

An objective of the delegation was not met. They wanted to meet with Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, Castro’s presumed successor, but he was not available.

Press Conference

At the conclusion of their trip, on February 21, the delegation held a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, and below is a photography of the delegation at this event.

According to Diario de Cuba, Senator Leahy said, “The embargo does not make sense and the reversal of the policies negotiated by Barack Obama and Raúl Castro does not help the US or Cuba.” In fact, he said, President Trump’s retreat from engagement with Cuba was “erroneous” and “stupid.”

Leahy also addressed the medical problems of some U.S. diplomats who had been stationed in Cuba. He said, “If we have to find out if something happened, it is a big mistake to close our embassy or to pretend that the Cubans close theirs. How are you going to get visas? How to maintain medical cooperation? What about the students? Of the projects in agriculture? There are many projects that are paralyzed.” 

Moreover, according to Leahy, the Cuban government has been cooperating in trying to ascertain the cause of these medical problems  and he believes the island’s authorities do not have the slightest intention to harm U.S. citizens who visit Havana. Indeed, not a single one of his colleagues had any fears about traveling to Cuba as they believe the island to be a safe place, and have even travelled here with their spouses, and in Leahy’s case, with his 13 year-old granddaughter.

Leahy added that there are many American diplomats who want to work in Cuba despite the symptoms that Washington previously said affected 24 U.S. government officials and spouses. As a result, Leahy urged the State Department on Wednesday to restore embassy staff in Havana as soon as possible.

Leahy also stated, “”Whoever is [the new] president in Cuba will make a mistake if he thinks we should maintain tensions between our countries, which is easy to say, but we have to go back to the dialogue we had between Obama and Castro.”

Representative McGovern, again as reported by Diario de Cuba, offered that protection of U.S. diplomats is “paramount,” but it was an “error” by the Trump Administration to cut the Embassy’s staff and to expel Cuban diplomats in Washington. Moreover, “US policy toward Cuba has been guided by paranoia and suspicion,” which he described as “stupid” because it has not yielded any fruit in more than fifty years of hostility. “Cuba is changing, it will soon elect a new president and it will have a generational change of leadership. Unfortunately, at that historic moment for Cuba, the involvement of the United States will be limited.”

Senator Wyden added that the delegation had stressed the importance for Cuba to unify its two currencies and “Cuba officials repeatedly said that this was the year to get it done.” Representative Castor subsequently added that the delegation asked the Cuban government to eliminate the 13 percent exchange tax on the U.S. dollar with respect to the CUC, the local convertible currency. The Cuban officials responded by saying “they would like to do that, but they have said that in the past,” said Castor.

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[1] Press Release, Leahy To Lead Congressional Delegation To Cuba (Feb. 16, 2018); Delegation of the United States Congress Visits Cuba, CubaDebate (Feb. 18, 2018); Senator Leahy visits the MINREX headquarters in Havana, Martí (Feb. 20, 2018); Raúl received a delegation from United States Congress, Granma (Feb. 21, 2018); US congressmen criticize Trump’s turn toward politics as “erroneous and stupid,” Diario de Cuba (Feb. 21, 2018); US congressional delegation reaffirms need to improve relations with Cuba, Granma (Feb. 21, 2018); US Congressmen insist on the need to improve ties with Cuba, CubaDebate (Feb. 21, 2018); Assoc. Press, US Lawmakers Say It’s Time to Restore Staff at Cuba Embassy, N.Y. Times (Feb. 21, 2018); Marsh, Cuba tells U.S. delegation monetary unification on cards this year, Reuters (Feb. 21, 2018); Torres, Cuba shares plans for single currency and more during a visit by U.S. lawmakers, Miami Herald (Feb. 21, 2018).