The U.S. and Cuba made historic headlines a year ago.
Thursday marks the first anniversary of President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announcing talks for the first time in a half century to normalize relations between the two geographically close but politically distant countries. With the help of Pope Francis, both governments are trying to overcome generational ill-feelings from the Cold War, the communist revolution that Fidel Castro led, the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis.
As a result, tourism is way up. From January to May, 51,458 Americans visited Cuba, a jump of 36 percent over 2014. Cuba has enjoyed a 14 percent increase in visitors from other countries, rising in the first five months from 1.3 million last year to 1.5 million this year.
Tourists pump badly needed money into the Cuban economy. My partner Bette and I on our trip to see the country as U.S.-Cuban relations were beginning to thaw, found it odd that tourists in that communist country were expected to tip Cubans just about everywhere.
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It’s such a capitalist habit. Yet, every cent helps Cuba update from a world 50 to 60 years in the past with a lot of old vehicles from that era into the 21st century with a growing number of Wi-Fi hot spots. The Cuban embassy opened in July in Washington, D.C.; and the U.S. Embassy in August in Havana opened for the first time in 54 years, each with flags once again flying.
Since traveling to Cuba, I have received reports from the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council Inc. It was established in 1994, enabling U.S. businesses to get accurate information and analysis on U.S.-Cuba commercial, political and economic relations. The council, with John Kavulich as its president, is neither tied to nor funded by either country. It is a private, nonprofit, membership-driven corporation.
Members have included Wal-Mart, Archer Daniels Midland Co., Tyson Foods Inc., Ace Hardware, FedEx Corp., Motorola Inc. and General Motors. The December “Economic Eye on Cuba” includes reports on U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba — something that should interest states like Missouri and Kansas.
It’s no small potatoes. Through October, the last month for which figures were available, U.S. exports of food and agricultural products to Cuba amounted to $13.4 million. That includedfrozen chicken leg quarters, corn and soybeans.
But as good as that sounds, it was down 19 percent compared with $16.5 million in October 2014. Year-to-date U.S. food and agricultural product exports to Cuba amounted to $160.1 million, but that was down 37 percent from 2014. Cuba ranked 58th for the U.S. of 228 food/agricultural export markets. The bright spot was in health care product exports. That was up 500 percent with a dollar value of $4.8 million so far this year.
Certainly there is room for growth in the export market, and more visits from U.S. and state officials to Cuba show the increasing significance Cuban consumers can have on our markets, particularly agriculture. The economic council report pegs the drop this year to a lack of a foreign exchange because of Cuba’s commercial and economic decisions.
But we also live in a global marketplace and must compete with other countries. Some with more favorable relationships include Canada, France, Mexico, Spain, Argentina, Brazil, Iran, New Zealand, Russia, China and Venezuela. In 2008, authorized U.S. exports to Cuba totaled $710 million, and Cuba was ranked 29th for the U.S. of 228 export markets.
Getting back to that level should be a goal for the U.S. That can happen if U.S.-Cuban relations grow stronger. Congress can help by lifting all trade barriers with Cuba.
In the highly competitive global marketplace, trade restrictions seem as out of date and inefficient as the old cars that still belch smoke and bad exhaust on Cuban streets.