Farmers want Cuban embargo lifted
Grant Strom, who farms near Williamsfield, and David Serven, a St. Augustine-area farmer, were among more than 20 Illinois Farm Bureau members and staff from across the state who traveled to Cuba on June 28 through July 2 in an effort to promote the resumption of normal trading relations with the country.
Strom, who was impressed by the Cuban people, said U.S. farmers can sell their products to the Caribbean nation, but there are a number of hurdles to jump to do so. For instance, the U.S. government will not allow Cuba to buy agriculture products on credit.
“If Cuba wants to buy a barge load of wheat, they have to pay for it in cash,” he said.
While products such as coffee, rum and cigars are produced in Cuba and in demand in the U.S., “They can’t sell those things back to us,” Strom said.
He said those restrictions hurt farmers in the U.S., who cannot readily sell their crops to the potential market, as well as the average Cuban, rather than government officials in the Communist country.
“They’re on the brink of a food shortage in Cuba,” Strom said.
Serven said each Cuban has a food coupon book.
“They can go to market and buy their needs at subsidized costs,” he said.
Serven said Cubans used to be able to use coupons to buy household goods, as well, but those are no longer available.
“Restoring normal trade relations with Cuba is an important step in furthering Illinois farmers’ abilities to market their produce, including grains, meat and dairy products,” said Tamara Nelsen, senior director of commodities for the Illinois Farm Bureau. “Agriculture has been a bright spot in our nation’s — and our state’s — economy during the recent downturn. Improving our trade relations with Cuba will only help to ensure agriculture can continue to strengthen our state and national economies.”
While there may be some potential for renewed trade with Cuba if the embargo is lifted, Serven thinks it will help Cuba more than affecting U.S. farmers.
“As far as being a boon for U.S. agriculture, I don’t think that will happen,” he said. “But it’s just the fact that we’re so close.”
Strom said the trade embargo has very real effects. For instance, rather than buying rice from Mississippi, which would take three days to get to the island nation, Cuba is forced to buy it from Vietnam, which takes 28 days to ship the nation, about 100 miles south of Florida.
“So logistically, the cost would be a whole lot cheaper (for Cuba) to buy food from the United States, just because of transportation costs,” Serven said.
He said there could be a market for U.S. dairy products.
“They were talking about a shortage of milk, especially for children,” Serven said.
He said if the embargo was lifted, Cuba also would likely buy equipment for farming and want people to help show them how to use it.
While the group from Illinois expected to get to visit dairy and livestock farms, Strom said travel restrictions limited trips to back yard gardens in Havana. Those on the trip also visited the Alamar Urban Garden, just outside of Havana.
“There’s a lot of restrictions as to where you can and can’t go,” he said.
Strom said oxen are used to plow the back yard gardens in the Latin American country, which also has little access to fertilizer or pesticides. He said about 160 people work 140 acres in the gardens.
“Maybe up here (U.S.), you’d have five or six (farmers). It’s labor intensive,” Strom said.
“They’re trying to do things the way our grandparents and great-grandparents did them,” Serven said.
Considering the conditions, he was amazed at the amount of pride the people of Cuba have in their country and how good their attitudes are.
“This was definitely an eye opener,” he said. “As a humanitarian myself, I don’t want to see people suffer. The embargo is making people suffer.”
Both men agreed the average Cuban citizen is the one suffering, not government officials who the embargo arguably was meant to punish.
Serven, a member of the state Farm Bureau board, said both the Illinois and American farm bureaus have lobbyists in Washington, D.C.
“The best lobbyists are when we take farmers from Illinois (and other states) and we’ll talk to people” in the nation’s capital, he said. “I know the Farm Bureau will continue to try to get this (embargo) lifted. I believe we’re going to make a good push this fall, even with it being an election year.
“As far as this embargo, I don’t know why such a few people in Florida have such a stranglehold,” he said of former Cubans living in the Miami area.
Sunday, July 08, 2012