US agricultural organizations, state farm bureaus and the US Chamber of Commerce have joined forces in support of a bill that would ease the current US embargo against Cuba, allowing food to be exported to the communist-ruled Caribbean island nation. The bill, which was approved by the House Agriculture committee earlier this month, is opposed by many Cuban-American groups who fear the opening would bolster communist rule.
For third-generation Texas rice farmer Ray Stoesser, Cuba is a promising market and he does not want politics to get in the way. "It is just time to make friends and feed them,: he said. "I think that America needs to use the products that they have, like food, and make friends with the world."
Stoesser says half of the rice produced in the US is exported to other countries, mainly Mexico, and that farmers could produce more if the market were to expand to Cuba. "Here in southeast Texas, just like south Louisiana, we enjoy a climate that is conducive to grow rice. It is hot and humid, [there is a] longer growing season," he explained. "We can produce one crop and harvest that, turn around and water the stubble and have a second crop."
Stoesser says the overall price of rice is determined by the export market. If that price is too low, he says, it will not adequately cover the expense of fuel, fertilizer, herbicides and equipment.
Rice is a staple food in Cuba and the country consumes more than 700,000 tons of rice a year. But Cuba is not capable of producing more than a fraction of that amount in its own fields.
In the year 2000, the United States did ease the agricultural export ban to Cuba, but a later tightening of policy, to require advance cash payments, choked off Cuban purchases of US grain. Cuba still imports some food from the United States, but the country is short on cash for a number of reasons including the damage done by hurricanes and a drop in tourism revenue.
Dwight Roberts is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Houston-based US Rice Producers Association. He says allowing US rice exports to Cuba would benefit both nations. "They import about 600,000 tons per year, some years a little more. Most of that is coming from Vietnam. The highest year that the US shipped rice, over these last 10 years, was in 2004; the US shipped 160,000 tons of rice, valued at about $65 million," he said.
Since 2008 the United States has not sold a single grain of rice to Cuba.
Many Cuban Americans say money should not be a factor in regard to the embargo as long as the Cuban government represses freedom and aggressively opposes US policies.
Roberts says Cuba is not alone in that regard. "We trade with a lot of countries around the world who are not necessarily overly friendly to US politics," he says, "but we have always felt that food and agriculture should be outside of the political arena."
Roberts says US farmers in general support the bill before Congress that would open the way for the export of rice and other food commodities to Cuba.
"It re-defines the definition of a cash payment back to the previous terms of payment after the ship has been loaded; it allows for direct banking. Right now, under the [current] terms, we have to use a third country bank," Roberts stated.
The bill would also ease travel restrictions to Cuba, which, US farmers believe, would increase the demand for US food products, including beef and pork.
But the bill to open such trade still faces heavy opposition in Congress and probably will not be debated until after the legislative body's August break.