Guest Commentary

U.S. should ease restrictions to boost trade with Cuba

People in Havana waving Cuban flags greeted passengers on Carnival’s Adonia cruise ship as they arrived in May from Miami. The Adonia’s arrival was the first step toward a future in which thousands of ships a year could cross the Florida Straits, long closed to most U.S.-Cuba traffic.
People in Havana waving Cuban flags greeted passengers on Carnival’s Adonia cruise ship as they arrived in May from Miami. The Adonia’s arrival was the first step toward a future in which thousands of ships a year could cross the Florida Straits, long closed to most U.S.-Cuba traffic. The Associated Press

Over the past year, the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba has gradually warmed up. While this is a good start, American business leaders are still waiting for a breakthrough on the economic front.

There is a need to achieve a greater opening between the two countries commercially, but supporting and advancing the values that we care about is immediate. The time is right.

After having had no relationship at all with Cuba for more than 50 years, we have reopened embassies, eased travel requirements and liberalized some restrictions on commercial activities. During the past year, congressional delegations and our secretaries of state, commerce and agriculture all traveled to Cuba on official visits.

In fact, policymakers and the public alike have indicated a willingness and desire to end a half-century of embargoes and re-establish relations with Cuba. By all indications, the United States is on the cusp of a new era of trade relations with the island nation.

The U.S. food and agriculture communities in particular are looking forward to the day when both countries will have access to new, high-demand markets only 90 miles away. For U.S. agricultural and food businesses, the prospect of normal relations means a huge nearby trade opportunity. For Cuba, the rollback of barriers heralds a new era of economic vitality and a better life for Cuban citizens.

There is a growing bipartisan consensus among lawmakers that the days of the long-standing trade embargo are numbered, and bills that advance pieces of this objective are moving along, although gradually, through Congress.

Nothing worthwhile is easy. However, while Congress debates, America’s competitors thrive.

Right now, as grain leaves U.S. Gulf ports for destinations around the world, trade restrictions prevent it from going to an obvious market just across the Gulf. And those same restrictions prevent Cuban agricultural products from reaching our shores.

As a result, other nations thousands of miles away — Brazil, Canada, Argentina and European Union countries, to name a few — satisfy Cuban demand for grain and other agricultural and food products, even though American producers and companies hold clear advantages in price, proximity, quality, service and innovation.

Congress has the power to lift the outdated embargo restrictions that hinder two-way trade between the two countries. The United States wants to export —and Cuba wants to buy — commodities such as rice, wheat, corn, chicken and grains, to name a few.

And Cuba, for its part, can satisfy growing U.S. demand for organic fruits and vegetables, coffee and farmed seafood, as well as traditional products like Cuban sugar and rum. Take the example of wheat. The amount of wheat that Cuba could buy would equal about 10 percent of Kansas’ (the wheat state’s) total production. This, in a year that we have extra grain stored on the ground across the state, would benefit both.

But current financing restrictions require Cuba to pay for agricultural products in cash or using third-party financing. And while the administration recently has taken steps to allow U.S. banks to finance certain kinds of trade with Cuba, food and agriculture are excluded — and remain the only industries that must seek credit from non-U.S. banks. Likewise, the ability of U.S. companies to provide badly needed investment in Cuban agriculture faces regulatory hurdles that have long outlived their original purpose.

And it’s not just barriers to financing and investment. U.S. consumers will not see Cuban produce in our markets until Congress lifts current restrictions on carriers that prevent products exported from Cuba from docking at U.S. ports for six months — a measure that effectively blocks Cuban agricultural products from gracing our tables.

The bottom line is this: Cuba, with 11 million consuming citizens only 90 miles off our coast, is a stunningly logical market for U.S. food and agriculture exports. We are natural trading partners. Normalizing trade relations between our two countries will enhance Cuban citizens’ access to affordable food while providing the U.S. farm and business community with a wide range of new market opportunities.

We must do our part to make it happen. The time to act is now.

Doug Keesling is a farmer and owner of Keesling Farms in Chase, Kan. He is also the state council chairman of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba and a member of the Trump Agricultural Advisory Committee.

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