Sunday, 28 December 2014

Agricultural Ties Bind U.S., Cuba

Last week, President Obama announced plans for a historic reversal of course in relations with Cuba. Diplomatic relations would be restored after more than 50 years. Many restrictions on travel and trade would be lifted.
The announcement was the latest in a gradual relaxing of restrictions on the rights of U.S. citizens to travel to and trade with Cuba.
In 2009, Obama announced the U.S. would lift restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting or sending money to Cuba. Obama further loosened these restrictions in 2011.
These changes likely wouldn't have been possible without a thawing in agricultural trade that can be traced back to the 1990s.
It was then that former Illinois governor George Ryan helped push for trade between his state and Cuba. He organized a Cuban visit that focused on agricultural exchanges. Ryan says he supports the recent changes.
The significance of the president's move can't be understated. It represents the biggest step taken by Obama—or any president—since the U.S. and Cuba severed ties in 1961.
What form will increased trade take in Cuba? Tourism will certainly see a boost. Still, despite the fact few Americans travel to the country—thanks to a near-blanket ban on travel—Cuba's tourism industry is well-established. It draws tourists from Canada, Europe, and elsewhere.
Rather than in tourism, then, the biggest boost in trade would—again—likely be seen in Cuba's moribund agricultural sector.
"With fewer restrictions and greater investment, agriculture could expand its capacity and serve international markets,"read a recent CNN commentary.
Poor or nonexistent infrastructure and tight regulations mean that Cuba imports most of its food. That's true despite attempts by Cuba's socialist government to restart the agricultural sector in recent years.
The New York Times reported in 2012 that President Raul Castro had "made agriculture priority No. 1 in his attempt to remake the country."
Castro's effort had failed, the Times noted, thanks to a combination of "waste, poor management, policy constraints, transportation limits, theft and other problems."
The Cuban state's unwillingness to relax its stranglehold on the food economy produced tragicomic results.
"In 2009, hundreds of tons of tomatoes, part of a bumper crop that year, rotted because of a lack of transportation by the government agency charged with bringing food to processing centers," reported the Times.
That was then.
"Even in the industries that have seen the most change since Mr. Castro became president in 2006, like agriculture, results have been tethered by the state," according to aTimes story last week. The same report notes farmers are often forced to transport food by bicycle.
The historic changes announced last week can't solve all of Cuba's problems. But they should have an impact.
"The expansion will seek to empower the nascent Cuban private sector," said President Obama in announcing the change, with permissible U.S. exports, for now, to include "agricultural equipment for small farmers."

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