Midwestern farmers may have reason for optimism after years of pushing for expanded trade with Cuba.
President Barack Obama on Dec. 17 abruptly announced the U.S. is re-establishing long-broken diplomatic relations with Cuba, declaring an end to the United States’ “outdated approach” to the communist island in a historic shift aimed at ending a half-century of Cold War enmity.
“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Obama said in remarks from the White House. “It’s time for a new approach.”
As Obama spoke to Americans, Cuban President Raul Castro addressed his nation from Havana, where bells pealed and schoolchildren interrupted their lessons to mark the news. Castro said that while the two countries still have profound differences in areas such as human rights and foreign policy, they must learn “the art of living together in a civilized manner.”
The announcement followed more than a year of secret talks between the United States and Cuba, including clandestine meetings in Canada and the Vatican and personal involvement from Pope Francis. Setting the stage for the diplomatic breakthrough, Cuba released American Alan Gross, who had been imprisoned for five years, and a Cuban who had spied for the U.S. In exchange, three Cubans jailed in Florida were released by the U.S.
Farmers in Illinois and Missouri long have looked upon the U.S. neighbor as a natural market — one that’s easy to reach through New Orleans, Georgia and Florida.
“It’s a short jaunt over to Havana,” said Duane Dahlman, a soybean farmer in Marengo, Ill., and marketing committee chairman for the Illinois Soybean Association.
The group is part of the Illinois Cuba Working Group, started in 1999 to lobby for better trade relations. (See related story at right.)
Currently, exports to Cuba are limited by prohibitions requiring it to pay cash for the shipments it receives. In 2013, U.S. exports to the island nation totaled just $348 million, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
“This is something we’ve essentially been preparing for for several years,” Dahlman said. “We’re ready to start moving food products and grain into Cuba soon.”
It’s unclear exactly how large the Cuban market would be for U.S. farmers — or if exports there would be offset by losses elsewhere as global purchasing patterns shift.
But, the distance between the two nations makes for a natural trade partnership, said Jim Stuever, former president of the Missouri Corn Growers Association and board member of the U.S. Grains Council.
“They’ll probably look at us before they look at anybody else,” said Stuever, who sees strong potential in the news. “It may not be a big ‘jump up and down in the streets’ deal. But, anything we get that adds another market makes a difference.”
Vernon Schmidt, executive vice president of the Farm Equipment Manufacturers Association, was tryingto figure out just how much President Barack Obama can do in this matter without the support of Congress.
The organization, based in St. Louis, represents more than 700 manufacturers, suppliers and marketers of small farming equipment. When they hear about the possibility of equipment exports to small Cuban farms, they see the potential for sales.
“A lot of equipment our guys make could be used there,” Schmidt said.
For now, the agriculture sector anxiously will watch the battle that appears to be shaping up between the president and lawmakers already expressing concerns over the prospect of normalized relations between the two nations.
Among the early critics is U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R.-Mo., who called the move a mistake in a written statement. “It’s hard — if not impossible — to normalize relations with a Castro-led Cuba. And, I don’t see anything in the president’s announcement to persuade me otherwise.”
It’s not the sort of language that convinces farmers the opening of the Cuban market is a done deal.
“It’s nice to see them take a stronger look at it,” said Phil Thornton, a director with the Illinois Corn Growers Association. “But, there’s a ways to go on this.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.