Rice Farming

 - Rice Producers Forum -

Front-page news finally
includes Cuba

By Dwight Roberts President and Chief
Executive Officer

For years, the U.S. rice industry and agriculture in general has been the lone voice crying for a new beginning in both politics and trade with the neighboring island country of Cuba. After many years of efforts by both the U.S. Rice Producers Association and the USA Rice Federation, along with a strong agriculture coalition, the news about Cuba is no longer a small paragraph tucked away on the back page but almost a daily front-page item in all major newspapers.

The winds of change are blowing in the right direction. The U.S. rice industry has traveled to Havana, met with Alimport and government officials, participated in food shows, promoted rice with the Cuban Culinary Institute and hosted several other activities. Yet, all along, we have known that the real fight has been in Washington, D.C.

A change of attitude on many fronts
Diplomats from both countries are planning informal meetings on issues such as migration and security, while the Obama administration is moving to open channels for academic and cultural interaction between the two countries. According to a senior White House official, we hope to develop a “serious, civil, open relationship.” All of Latin America and a growing number in the United States are looking for a major change in attitude between Washington, D.C., and Havana as an indication of a greater effort towards improving relations with the Western Hemisphere.

A U.S. State Department official described the pressure for a new policy with Cuba as a “steamroller” and that the White House was “trying to drive it, rather than get run over by it.” The Cuban exiles in Miami are calling on the White House for an expansion of relations with Havana. The leading organization for Cuban exiles, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) calls for “a break from the past” that would “chart a new direction for United States-Cuba policy.”

Francisco Hernandez, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, told the New York Times in April of 2009, “For 50 years, we have been trying to change the Cuban government” and “at the present time, what we have to do is change the emphasis to the Cuban people because they are going to be the ones who change things in Cuba.”

Of particular interest was Mr. Hernandez describing the embargo as “a symbol” and “not something that is important anymore.” Saying that the American policy should focus on proactive policies to the island and not focus on sanctions is a reversal from the organization’s original principles.

Their 14-page proposal that can be viewed at www.canf.org has been described as striking for its new ideas. This change in attitude is expected to help the Obama administration achieve its goal of more open relations with Cuba. While opposition to the CANF will probably come from Florida’s Republican members of Congress, Mr. Hernandez says the foundation will not be intimidated by the old guard to which it once belonged while stating, “we have to adapt, and that is what we have done.”

For the U.S. rice industry, the possibility of eventually exporting up to 600,000 tons of rice to Cuba each year is no longer just a lofty dream. Building trade starts with a stronger foundation of trust that one’s counterpart will act in good faith and confidence that it can and will perform on its obligations.

Building and maintaining trust and confidence has been a cornerstone of U.S. ag trade policy since President Carter imposed an embargo on the sale of U.S. grain to Russia in 1980. As a result, the policy of Congress and successive administrations has been to keep the U.S. government out of the business of using food exports as a foreign policy weapon. So why have we ignored those lessons of the Russian grain embargo in our policy with Cuba?

Now that Cuba is front-page news, at least we will not need to hunt for it on the back page. Stay tuned.

For more about USRPA, visit www.usriceproducers.com.