WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s timing on his restrictive policy toward relations with Cuba could not have been worse for Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau. .
On Friday, as Paap prepared to join Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith and other farm group leaders on a trade mission this week to encourage the Cuban government to purchase crops and livestock from their state, Trump complicated matters by retreating from President Barack Obama’s policy of openness with the island nation.
Trump’s tough talk amounted to “a step in the wrong direction,” said Paap, a corn and soybean farmer from Mankato in southern Minnesota. He said the policy change just two years after Obama’s détente efforts disheartened U.S. farmers who need new markets for their products.
The trade mission from Minnesota, one of the country’s largest agriculture states, proceeded as planned. Paap said his farm group and others will continue to promote exports to Cuba because trade is good for American agriculture and farm-related jobs.
He said farmers see trade with Cuba as an opportunity to help them cope with low U.S. crop prices. Wheat, for example, dropped to its lowest price in a decade last year.
Paap said American farmers struggle to make a decent living, facing rising health insurance costs like everybody else. He said he and his wife pay $2,000 per month for coverage that has a deductible of $6,000.
Jennifer Huntington, who has 300 cows on her 1,100-acre dairy farm in Cooperstown, New York, said dairy prices have dropped by around a third since 2014. She said she has a hard time paying repair bills for milking equipment.
“Having another market to sell to would definitely help,” she said.
Trump’s policy re-imposes travel restrictions to Cuba and also bars U.S. companies from doing business with entities owned by the country’s military or intelligence agencies. He said he rolled back normalization of relations with Cuba because of that country’s poor human rights record.
Technically, American officials said, the new policy does not apply to agriculture goods sent to Cuba through that government’s import agency Alimport, which has been accepting U.S. corn, dairy products and a few other farm goods since 2000, when Congress passed a law easing the American embargo on Cuba.
But Cuban President Raul Castro’s strong rebuke of Trump’s policy – he called it reminiscent of “the times of open confrontation” – worries farm organizations that even existing imports of U.S. commodities to Cuba may dry up as other, friendlier countries step up their efforts to sell agriculture products to the government.
Besty Ward, president of U.S. A. Rice Foundation, told farm publications last week returning to “policies that have not only not worked for half a century, but also harmed American farmers, is not in the interests of rural citizens who helped elected President Trump and who he said he was going to put first.”
Ward said her organization has been striving to convince the Cuban government to import rice, a mainstay of the Cuban diet. America was a major importer of rice to Cuba before the countries cut off trade more than 60 years ago.
Cuba spends about $2 billion a year on agriculture imports, but only $200 million of it goes to U.S. farmers, said David Salmonsen, the American Farm Bureau’s senior director of congressional relations.
Since the 2000 law relaxing the U.S. embargo, nearly $5 billion in American agricultural goods have been purchased by Cuba, according to U.S. Agriculture Department’s records.
Exports reached a peak in 2009 when 42 percent of Cuban food imports came from the U.S. Since then, imports from the European Union, Brazil and other countries reduced the U.S. percentage to 16 percent in 2014, said the USDA. Wheat imports went from 43 percent in 2009 to zero two years later.
The U.S. was Cuba’s largest corn supplier seven years ago, but now American farmers provide only 14 percent of the communist country’s corn. The picture is the similar with dairy, poultry and other products, said the USDA.
Regardless of Trump’s directive, the American Farm Bureau and other groups said they will continue working with Congress to pass measures encouraging Cuba to buy more food from the U.S. Farm organizations favor a bill to allow Cuba to buy food on credit.
Still, agricultural leaders worry Trump’s policy and tough talk toward Cuba won’t help.
“As we cope with the biggest drop in farm prices in decades, we need to be opening up markets for American farm goods, not sending signals that might lead to less access,” American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall said in a statement.
“Wheat growers are facing significant economic hurdles and need more markets,” said David Schemm, a wheat farmer from Sharon Springs, Kansas, and president of the National Association of Wheat Growers.
Paap, in an interview before he left for Cuba, said he understood Trump’s concern for human rights in Cuba but that a good way to deal with that is by helping to feed the Cuban people.
“One of the things trade does is raise the standard of people around the word,” he said. “US. policies towards Cuba haven’t worked that great the last 60 years. Let’s try something different.”
Members of Congress from agricultural states also took issue with Trump’s harder-line policy.
“Americans agree that we need to encourage -- rather than discourage -- engagement with Cuba,” U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., wrote in an opinion article for CNN. “Why? Doing business with Cuba is good for America. It's that simple.”
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., who represents the Mankato region, said by “negatively impacting the U.S. relationship with Cuba, it is unlikely Cuba will want to buy more ag prodcuts from us.”
Republican Congressman John Boozman of Arkansas told the Associated Press that Trump’s policy moves America backward.
“It would be more effective to continue an open line of communication and working relationship with a government in need of democratic assistance, instead of shutting them out,” he said. “Through this approach, we not only trade goods, but ideas.”
Contact CNHI Washington reporter Kery Murakami at firstname.lastname@example.org.