A Pew Research poll conducted in January shows that more than 60 percent of Americans support President Barack Obama’s decision in December to establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba – and move towards ending the economic embargo in place since the Kennedy administration in the 1960s. Among the strongest supporters for ending the embargo are American farmers, who see Cuba as a relatively new market for exports.
The planting season is still several months away for Illinois farmer Thomas Marten, but he’s excited about the future that could see more of his products available to the once-off-limits island nation of Cuba.
"Here on our farm, we actually grow a lot of specialty corn, a lot of non-GMO and hard endosperm corn, which goes almost exclusively into export markets. So we would see a benefit for our own operation in additional exports to Cuba," said Marten.
Lifting the embargo, Marten says, could help him increase his profits by 15 percent.
Sending his products to Cuba, which imports about 80 percent of its food, would have been unheard of for his father.
"The entire time my father and my uncles would have been farming, we’ve actually had an embargo in place. It’s been over 54 years that we’ve had that market not open to us in the United States," said Marten.
Marten is among a group of farmers pushing lawmakers to lift the embargo.
But even before Obama announced the opening to Cuba, products from Illinois fields were already reaching the Cuban people. Mark Albertson is with the Illinois Soybean Association.
"Agriculture’s been exempt from the trade embargo thanks to the Trade Sanctions and Reform Act under President Clinton. But we still have to jump through a lot of hoops," said Albertson.
One of the hoops is that the U.S. can nott extend credit to Cuba. The Cubans have to pay in cash, up front.
“And that makes us very un-competitive, and we’ve seen a dramatic decline in our ag exports to Cuba in recent years," said Albertson.
“We feel that economic development is freedom," said Paul Johnson.
Johnson is the Vice Chair of the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba.
“What we do is represent U.S. agriculture in our trade relations with Cuba," he said.
Johnson says by ending the embargo and extending credit to Cuba, the United States becomes more competitive - especially because of its proximity to the island.
“I think businesses are excited about those opportunities," he said.
So excited in fact that spaces on a trip to Cuba Johnson is leading filled up quickly.
Farmer Thomas Marten is one of about 75 agriculture and business representatives traveling with Johnson to the island nation in March. It will be Marten’s second trip to Cuba, and while he is optimistic about future trade, he is also realistic about the challenges.
“There’s definitely a lot of issues we have to work through with human rights. As both a farmer and a Catholic, I definitely saw that there are a lot of churches closed there, and that’s something that definitely concerns me in Cuba - their human rights record. That said, 54 years of our embargo has done very, very little in improving the human rights conditions in Cuba," he said.
In his State of the Union Address, President Obama called on Congress to begin the work of ending the embargo, and Marten hopes when it comes time to drive his corn and soy to grain elevators next year, more of it will eventually find its way to Cuba.