Cuba getting closer

Optimism abounds that U.S. rice soon will be en route to the island.

By Betsy Ward President and CEO USA Rice Federation
By Betsy Ward
President and CEO
USA Rice Federation

The world was sent buzzing recently when President Obama announced a complete overhaul of our nation’s Cuba policy. Some remember the time when Cuba was the No. 1 export market for U.S.-grown rice, might those days return?

Things look promising, but the full answer is not quite as clear as some might think. Yes, the Cuban people eat a lot of rice – almost 200 pounds per person annually; and yes, the Cuban people love U.S.- grown rice. When I visited in 2007, shopkeepers told me of hours-long lines that would form when news spread that our rice had arrived.

Yes, also the policy changes move us in the right direction – particularly “cash in advance” being re-interpreted to mean “cash before transfer of control” – a change USA Rice has long sought. Also, allowing U.S. banks to open accounts in Cuban banks will facilitate transactions.

Importance Of Two-Way Trade
However, the Cuban economy is struggling. At times they lack sufficient hard currency to purchase needed imports. A taste and desire for our product does nothing if the customer has no money.

Fidel Castro samples U.S.-grown rice at the USA Rice booth during the 2002 International Trade Fair.
Fidel Castro samples U.S.-grown rice at the USA Rice booth during the 2002 International Trade Fair.

Which is why USA Rice has long supported normal commercial relations with Cuba – allowing Cuba to sell products to the U.S., and Americans to visit the island. This will generate the foreign exchange Cuba requires to buy products they need from us – like rice. Two-way trade is the foundation of our trade with every other country in the world, and it should certainly be so here in our own backyard.

USA Rice first engaged with Cuba in 1999 with a delegation to Havana, and we have been on the ground since 2001 when we were the first U.S. commodity participating in the Havana International Fair. Our efforts there directly led to the first Cuban purchase of U.S.-grown rice in 40 years. Sales continued up until 2008 when changes in U.S. government policies made it impossible for us to sell to Cuba.

Cuba has been, and remains, a priority for us. We meet regularly with the head of the Cuban Interests Section – the highest ranking Cuban official in the United States; we have maintained a license to travel to Cuba at any point, and will do so this month. We are in close regular contact with the Administration on this important market.

The USA Rice Federation is also a founding member of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba (USACC), a group working for the normalization of trade relations between the countries that is supported by the Administration and a bipartisan collection of governors and members of Congress. Cuba was once a great market for us, and with our clear logistical advantages, and their preference for U.S.-grown rice, it may become so once again. Hurdles remain, but the USA Rice Federation is working diligently to clear them, and we believe U.S.-grown rice will be bound for Cuba soon.

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