The United States sells billions of dollars worth of farm goods to a communist-led country thousands of miles off our western border. It sells practically nothing to another communist-led country just 90 miles off the Florida coast.
There is no simple answer. Cuba and China may have the same style government and oppressive track record on human rights, but that’s mainly where similarities end.
Now, with a new White House and Covid vaccines on the horizon, the question looms: How will our trade relationship with Cuba change?
Headwinds of history
Real progress in Cuban trade faces the strong headwinds of history, starting in 1823 with the Monroe Doctrine, Fidel Castro’s communist takeover in the ‘50s, JFK’s ongoing yet failed embargo, President Obama’s Cuban thaw, and more recently, President Trump’s restrictions that rocked the island nation even as it reels from a devastating pandemic-driven recession.
“The closure of the tourist sector due to COVID-19 has thrown Cuba into a full-fledged recession, deeper than anything since the economic crisis of the 1990s that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union—what Cubans know as the “Special Period,” writes William LeoGrande in World Politics Review.
Yet Cuba is a market hungry for American goods; a destination where transport costs for U.S. farm products and crop inputs would be a fraction compared with other export customers. Most American farmers who travel there say they would love to have Cuba’s 11 million citizens as customers.
Our country’s 60-year-old failed economic embargo is outlined in a number of official government policies including the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, which says sanctions on Cuba will continue as long as the Cuban government refuses to move toward "democratization and greater respect for human rights." While most Americans support normalized relations with Cuba, a small but potent lobby in Congress, led by zealous Cuban Americans living mainly in Florida, keeps the anti-Cuba fires stoked, even though Castro himself is long gone.
“One freshman Congressman was pulled aside and told, ‘If you don’t support the embargo, you’re un-American,’” says Paul Johnson, co-chair of the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba “They grew up hearing stories of their property being nationalized and families persecuted.”
Trump policies sink Cuban economy
President Trump read the political winds in Florida and took a hard line on Cuba. “We will not lift sanctions on the Cuban regime until all political prisoners are freed, freedoms of assembly and expression are respected, all political parties are legalized, and free and internationally supervised elections are scheduled,” he said in 2017. “We will very strongly restrict American dollars flowing to the military, security and intelligence services that are the core of Castro regime…We will enforce the ban on tourism. We will enforce the embargo. We will take concrete steps to ensure that investments flow directly to the people, so they can open private businesses and begin to build their country’s great, great future — a country of great potential.”
President Trump shuttered cruise ships and flights to certain Cuban cities and banned Americans from staying at over 400 Cuban hotels. More recently he prohibited the processing of remittances through entities on the ‘Cuba restricted list,’ which made it difficult or impossible for Cuban Americans to send money back to loved ones in Cuba.
“Some 700,000 Cubans in the U.S. send remittances to Cuba each year, totaling $1.5 billion a year,” says James McGovern, D, Mass. “Shutting off Cubans’ access to this crucial lifeline in the middle of a global pandemic and economic crisis is cruel, heartless and frankly ineffective. While the Trump administration argues that it supports the Cuban people, its policies are having the opposite effect.”
Yet, years of pandering to Cuban American voters paid off for Trump, helping to ensure swing state Florida voted red in 2020. After the election exit polls show some 55% of Cuban Americans voted for Trump.
A strange voting bloc
What’s confusing? They voted for Trump’s strong stance to punish Cuba, yet, a 2020 Florida International University poll of Cuban Americans shows two-thirds agree the embargo has not worked; some 69% want to resume selling food to Cuba; nearly three out of four want to be able to send medicines to the island.
Talk about a mixed message. But maybe that’s to be expected after the rollercoaster ride of policy changes the U.S. has tried with Cuba. Punishing a country for its ideology only really hurts the country’s citizens. And boy are Cubans hurting now.
More than 25,000 cattle died of malnutrition in Cuba between January and July of this year, according to 14ymedio, an independent Cuban digital media outlet. In the 1950s Cuba had more than 6 million head of cattle; that number shrank to slightly more than 4 million by 2015.
In Camagüey, the largest producing province, farmers are milking less than half of the 161,449 cows of reproductive age.
The government’s response to the coronavirus has been effective – just 131 deaths as of mid-November - but the economy has been hit hard. “We’re concerned about food security,” says Johnson. “Food lines are growing, and supplies are uneven.”
The devastating blow has been the ban on travel and the tourism Cuba depends upon. In good news, Cuba resumed operations at Havana’s José Marti International Airport in November after months of closures and restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Fidel is gone but the Castro regime is still very much alive, represented by current president Miguel Díaz-Canel, sworn in to office in 2019. He is the first leader who is not a Castro since 1959. He is expected to succeed Fidel’s brother Raúl Castro as first secretary of the communist party of Cuba in 2021.
Science and research
While the Cuban economy suffers from its own political dogma, it is still a highly educated country. It trains and sends doctors abroad to help other poor countries. Its government encourages science and research, from working on its own coronavirus vaccines to genetically modified crops.
According to Granma, the “official voice of the communist party of Cuba Central Committee,” transgenic hybrid corn will soon be grown on a larger scale with a focus on animal feed.
“The initiative will allow yields much higher than those currently achieved in the island's cornfields and is an example of the solidity of the Cuban system of science, technology and innovation and its ability to offer its own solutions to farmers,” a Sept. 2020 article noted in typically cryptic propaganda language. In the preceding five years the country spent about a billion dollars for the purchase of corn in the international market, at a rate of 800,000 to 1 million tons per year.
Reason for hope?
Agriculture has been tagged as the top priority by Cuban officials, and policy changes will likely come soon. Cuba’s government would make substantial progress in farm policy just by implementing a set of liberalizing steps approved in 2011 but shelved ever since, says Johnson.
He also believes the country will improve under President-elect Joe Biden.
“There is reason to be optimistic with Biden as it relates to agriculture trade and Cuba,” he told me. “There’s a lot of work that has been done despite increased prohibition and regulation from the Trump administration. We’ve maintained relationships in Cuba and followed policy changes in Cuban agriculture. They are mainly positive and would provide more exchange between us and Cuban producers. It increases opportunities for imports and ag exports.”
U.S. trade with Cuba hit a peak in 2008 and has headed south ever since. The U.S. now provides just 10% of all the ag goods that Cuba purchases from suppliers from around the world. It’s not huge, but Cuba does import about $2 billion a year in agriculture products.
“We have to make the case for agriculture, and why it’s important not only to farmers but the U.S. national interests to engage with Cuba,” Johnson says. “Ag is a hugely important sector for Cuba and employs a lot of people. A lot of people depend on the Cuban farm economy to improve.”
One of the quicker ways to help is if Congress amends the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement act (TSRA), passed in 2000. It would allow the U.S. to sell food to Cuba. “Based on the law now we can only sell to Cuba in cash and that limits our competitiveness in the Cuban market,” says Johnson.
Amending the law would help, but an end to the long-standing failed embargo is the ultimate way to re-engage with Cuba, adds Johnson.
“Regarding Biden, we’d like him to be forward leaning and understand that if you really want to help agriculture the most, you end the embargo. We won’t be able to sell more until we have normal relations with Cuba.
“What we want is normal relationships so our farmers can work with theirs to solve problems.”
Coming Saturday: Colorful, captivating Cuba: Worth another look