By John Rigolizzo, Jr.: Berlin, New Jersey
We’re all for “Cuba Libre”—a free Cuba that allows its people to elect their government, speak their mind, and own their property.
The question is how to get there.
I continue to believe that U.S. farmers should lead the way.
Americans of good faith have pursued a variety of strategies to support and encourage Cuban freedom. Three years ago, President Obama chose to normalize relations. Last week, President Trump opted for a partial pullback from that approach by adding new business and travel restrictions.
“Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” said Trump.
So what would a good deal look like?
Part of it would allow American farmers to sell more of what we grow to Cuban customers. We need new markets—and amazingly, there’s a big one right off our shores.
Cubans import about $2 billion in food each year, but in 2016 they purchased only $200 million from Americans—a tiny amount given the productivity of our farms and the proximity of our ports. This figure marks a slight improvement compared to 2015, but otherwise it’s our worst year of farm sales to Cuba since 2002.
We can do better.
Here’s the best part: By doing well we can also do good.
The curse of Cuba is Communism—the repressive dictatorship that the late Fidel Castro forced upon the island nation and which continues under the iron rule of his brother, Raoul Castro. Ordinary Cubans lack basic freedoms. This includes economic freedoms. The military controls a huge share of the economy. The kind of entrepreneurship that drives American prosperity is nonexistent.
I’ve always believed that trade is an excellent way to introduce market principles. If we can show that the free exchange of goods and services across borders produces benefits, then perhaps more Cubans will realize that the same within their own borders makes sense as well.
Yet we can be even more ambitious. Americans shouldn’t just sell farm products to Cuba—we should grow food in Cuba itself.
About 15 years ago, I joined an agricultural delegation on a fact-finding trip to Cuba. Although we were almost always in the presence of Castro’s minders, I learned a lot.
One of my most vivid memories involves seeing a Cuban farm. It looked like something from the 19th century: Its most advanced technology was a cultivator pulled by an ox. A farmer walked behind it, and behind him came two men whose job was to uncover lettuce plants that the cultivator had buried.
This was manual labor, distantly removed from the mechanized farming that has delivered so many blessings to the world.
The Cuban farmers did have Russian-made tractors, but they had broken down. People who visit Havana often marvel at all the classic cars, kept in beautiful condition by first-rate mechanics. In the country, however, there’s nothing like it. Farmers lack the spare parts to keep their equipment in the field.
This is just one of the reasons Cubans struggle to feed themselves. I’ve seen the food markets in their cities: No grocery store in the United States would stock the produce that I saw there.
What Cuban farmers really need, however, is an injection of 21st-century American know-how. Imagine if Americans could invest in Cuban agriculture, bringing our expertise to this impoverished land.
I’m confident a number of American farmers would jump at the chance to work in Cuba’s constant sunshine and plant in its delta-black soil—some of the richest soil I’ve ever seen.
Suddenly, the innovation of an economy based on free enterprise would no longer be an abstract concept. It would exist right before the eyes of the Cuban people.
Today, of course, none of this is possible—but it’s also the kind of two-sided deal that President Trump should seek in the years ahead.
Then, when Cuba’s freedom revolution finally comes, people can rightfully say that American farmers helped plant its seeds.
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth-generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm produces for retail and wholesale markets. John volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network (www.globalfarmernetwork.org).