US House Agriculture Representatives Visit to Cuba: The Elephant in the Room

By Gustavo A Maranges on November 27, 2022

photo: Bill Hackwell

Last week, a delegation of three representatives completed a working visit to Cuba. The bipartisan group was made up of Salud Carbajal (D-CA), Jim Baird (R-IN), and Jahana Hayes (D-CT), all members of the House Agriculture Committee. This is the third U.S. delegation visiting Cuba to explore business opportunities this year and the second one from the agricultural sector after 25 businessmen attended the International Agricultural and Livestock Fair (FIAGROP) in April.

The visit is part of the House Agriculture Committee’s broader program investigating the impact of U.S. agribusiness policies around the world. Cuba may not be a quantitatively important market for the United States, as it is its 55th largest trading partner in agriculture. However, the U.S. sanctions regime on the island makes it a unique case.

On this occasion, the three representatives met with Cuban Vice President Salvador Valdes Mesa, Foreign Affairs First Deputy Minister Gerardo Peñalver, and Deputy Minister in charge of United States affairs Carlos Fernandez de Cossio. According to the House Committee, the delegation exchanged possible forms to expand cooperation and bilateral trade.

In addition, they met with Cuban farmers and several companies in the sector, which means they could see first-hand the critical situation the island is going through, aggravated by the rise in prices on the international market and the absurd economic blockade by the United States.

The blockade is the greatest obstacle to expanding any economic relationship between the two countries. In the case of agricultural exchanges, it forces Cuba to pay in cash, in advance, and using only ships authorized by OFAC to touch Cuban ports.

Despite these obstacles, there is also an underlying inequality, since Cuba can only export a few products to the United States. That’s why charcoal is the main Cuban product heading to the U.S. instead of rum or tobacco which are banned from entering the U.S. as imports.

Despite this archaic logic bringing little benefits, trade has maintained an upward trend, reaching US$253 million in 2021, twice the 2020 turnout. Most of this number corresponds to chicken drumsticks imports, which have become the main source of protein for Cuban families.

Although it is an essential product for the Cuban economy, the current turnout is only about 10% of the island’s food imports. The potential and needs of both markets are much wider, especially if one takes into account that Cuba spends over US$2 billion annually to cap its food needs, while the U.S. market has been closed to Cuba for more than six decades.

On the other hand, the technological backwardness of the agricultural sector in Cuba is well known. This is why the Cuban government listed it as one of its top priorities to catch foreign investments, which means even more opportunities for U.S. investors. However, once again, the blockade is the only real obstacle.

This is not a political argument, but a real one, acknowledged even by the businessmen who accompanied then-President Barack Obama on his visit to Cuba in 2016. On the contrary, the current delegation turned a blind eye to it, pretending it does not exist.

They avoided either the blockade or the sanctions in any of their statements. Given this scenario, it seems there is little to hope for. If there is no real will to lift the blockade, any effort to expand cooperation and business with Cuba will just be paltry.

Source: Resumen Latinoamericano – US