Island Access

Island Access

Delegation visits Cuba with eye toward trade

Like a game of chess, the effort to make inroads in Cuba will require careful planning and foresight from U.S. agricultural producers. Yet competitors such as Brazil are already building up the island nation’s export and food-processing infrastructure, which is why advocates say Congress must act quickly to lift the embargo.

“Investors are flocking in and dipping their toe in the water to figure out whether they have a play there,” explains Devry Boughner Vorwerk, chair of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba and vice president for corporate affairs at Cargill. 

In early March, Vorwerk and about 95 other leaders in agribusiness, commodities and government visited the country. Attendees visited with representatives in Cuban sugar, tobacco, aquaculture and other farm sectors to learn about production practices, available technology and financial requirements.

Law Under Review. It’s true some people question whether legislators can look past partisan differences to lift the embargo, Vorwerk says, or whether a market of 11 million people will make a measurable financial impact for U.S. farmers. Yet she is convinced U.S.-Cuba relations will see positive change this year.

“What we’re talking about is unraveling 54 years of a policy,” Vorwerk says. “We are certainly energized to make the case in 2015.”

Challenges remain in Congress and in other political circles. At a recent Iowa forum on agriculture, Republican presidential candidates opposed advancing ties with Cuba, the news website Politico notes. 

Yet seven U.S. senators have introduced legislation known as the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act, which aims to break down barriers for American farmers.  

The measure would repeal provisions that prevent business relationships while leaving intact components that focus on human rights and outstanding property claims.

“This is another very good opportunity for Illinois soybean farmers and the businesses who use our soybeans,” says Illinois Soybean Growers Chairman Bill Raben, a soybean farmer from Ridgway, Ill. “This action could open a lot of doors for both soybean and meat exports. We’re pleased to see support and progress on exploring future trade opportunities with Cuba.”

Another measure, the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, also enjoys support from both political parties.

Cuba imports about 60% of its domestic food requirements, which makes it vulnerable.

Keys To Development. Three important takeaways from the Cuba trip can help guide the U.S. in the future, Vorwerk says. First, farmers on the island need access to inputs, capital and services. Second, Cuba will need to increase its agricultural imports to become a tourism hub. Third, the U.S. should consider exploring ways to collaborate with other countries to invest in Cuban infrastructure to facilitate rapid ag production improvements. 

By The Numbers

Agriculture is an important part of life for many Cuban workers, as these data points from the CIA World Factbook reveal. 

main farm products are sugar, tobacco, citrus, coffee, rice, potatoes, beans and livestock

3.8%  Percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) agriculture contributes

19.7%  Workers who are employed in agriculture as a percentage of total workers

major seaports include Antilla, Havana, Mariel and Santiago de Cuba


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