Tuesday, March 3, 2015

U.S. farm groups push for trade with Cuba

The most important U.S. agricultural delegation to visit Cuba in more than a decade began three days of meetings this week, hoping to find potential business partners, while urging politicians to lift the U.S. trade embargo.

Two former agriculture secretaries, a number of state agriculture officials and representatives of various state farm bureaus are among the 95 people making the trip, which was organized by the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba. That group was formed after the Dec. 17 announcement the U,S. would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.

"The message we hope will get back to Washington is that we are a unifying voice that would like to see Congress act in 2015 and end the embargo," Cargill executive Devry Boughner Vorwerk, chairwoman of the coalition, said in an interview.

The coalition says U.S. farmers are hungry for a $2 billion market so close to home and frustrated by U.S. restrictions.

The United States created an embargo exception in 2000 to allow food sales, but it still denies Cuba credit, forcing it to pay cash up front.

U.S. food sales to Cuba fell in 2014 to $291 million, from a peak of $710 million peak in 2008. The coalition wants U.S. exports to top $1 billion, about half the value of Cuba's food imports today.

U.S. farmers can renew corn, wheat and rice exports to Cuba, which have fallen sharply, while importers want to explore Cuban seafood, winter vegetables, citrus and tobacco, coalition members said. There was particular interest in high-margin organic products from Cuba.

The U.S. news reports say nothing about allowing Cuban sugar into the highly-subsidized and highlty-tariff-protected U.S. market.

Open U.S. trade with Cuba would impact Canada’s agriculture and food industry in a number of ways, such as competition for grain exports and a potential loss of U.S. markets for Canadian cookies that enjoy a competitive advantage because Canadians can buy sugar at much lower prices than their U.S. competitors.

While President Barack Obama has loosened some trade and travel restrictions, most of the embargo remains in place and can only be ended by Congress, now in Republican control.

The Republicans have been opposing anything Obama wants, almost regardless of the merits of the case.