The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

Opening Up Farm Trade to Cuba Will Aid Delta's Economic Growth

Posted on December 18, 2014 at 03:38 PM

The Delta Grassroots Caucus supports opening up trade with Cuba to expand exports from the Delta to that country. Many of our partners have been directly involved in this issue for many years due to its important implications for economic development in the Delta region.

Before the embargo, farmers in Arkansas and some other Delta states used to export a large volume of products to Cuba; in particular, Arkansas rice farmers sold much of their crop to the island. We look forward to resuming that trade soon for the economic development of our region and the rest of the country.

Caucus Director Lee Powell traveled to Cuba in 1988 on a fact-finding trip for then Congressman Bill Alexander to discuss opening up trade with Cuba with high-level Cuban government officials, including Ricardo Alarcon, one of Fidel Castro’s most powerful aides.

Powell said “Many of our partners have been to Cuba and worked with officials from both countries since the 1980s until today to open up farm trade to Cuba. The embargo has done absolutely nothing to change Cuba’s authoritarian regime, and when a policy has not worked for 50 years it’s just common sense that it’s time for a change.”

Powell said “the embargo actually helped the Castro brothers and the authoritarian regime, because in their propaganda they could blame their economic failures on the embargo rather than the true cause, which was the disastrous communist agenda.”

Powell pointed out that President Raul Castro once again trotted out the old propaganda line that the embargo is a major cause of Cuba’s poverty, “when we all know that their economy was destroyed by communism. Take away the embargo and you take away that worn-out propaganda line, especially for the Cuban people themselves.”

The Delta Caucus would like to express our gratitude for Congressman Bill Alexander, who was the champion of opening up trade to Cuba over a quarter of a century ago and was severely attacked for doing so at that time. But this is an idea whose time has finally arrived and in retrospect Bill Alexander was right.

The Delta Caucus especially applauds the wise comments of Sen. John Boozman (R-AR), a long-time supporter of lifting the embargo who said “We’ve been kind of running the same play for decade after decade, and it hasn’t worked. I believe when you trade with people, trade goods and services, you also trade ideas, and that’s how you change the world.”

President Obama announced a series of policy changes at normalizing relations with Cuba, including easing trade, travel and financial restrictions. Pope Francis encouraged secret talks over the past 18 months and hosted a final meeting at the Vatican.

A full lifting of the embargo will require Congressional action.

Many Delta Caucus partners have traveled to Cuba and advocated for this change for three decades, including Harvey Joe Sanner, president of the American Agriculture Movement, Des Arc, Delta Caucus senior adviser Kevin Smith of Helena-West Helena, Caucus Director Lee Powell and others.

Kevin Smith, Delta Caucus senior advocate from Helena-West Helena visited Cuba in early December–literally a week ago, “Having just returned from Cuba, I learned that we can either fill the gap in trade ourselves, or the Chinese, Vietnamese and Russians and others will continue to do so even more. This will help our economy in the Delta.”

Smith said “In Cuba I saw evidence of relaxations on private ownership, some new real estate businesses being started, some allowance for religious expression, and with this leverage from ending the counterproductive isolation policy, we should expect even more progress.”

“This policy is long overdue, and expanding agriculture exports is vital for the Delta’s economy,” said Harvey Joe Sanner, president of the American Agriculture Movement of Arkansas and a senior Delta Caucus adviser, who met with Fidel Castro in a trade mission to Cuba in 1987 arranged by then First District Congressman Bill Alexander.

Of course, the Delta Caucus and all Americans condemn the Cuban authoritarian policies, but the embargo/isolation policy has been tried for 50 years now, and it’s time for the change that President Obama’s administration as well as countless other practical economic development advocates have held for many years. “Once capitalism starts infiltrating Cuba, this will undermine the communist regime,” Powell said.

“We have been working on this issue for 30 years and are glad to see this historic breakthrough,” Powell said. “We encourage practical advocates for economic development from both parties in Congress to step up and pass legislation to end the embargo in 2015.”

Exports to Cuba from the Delta region actually did increase after Congress passed legislation in 2000 to allow food and medicine exports to Cuba. For example, Arkansas exports to Cuba in 2004 reached about $34 million. But then the administration of President George W. Bush placed restrictions requiring Cuban purchasers of American goods to pay cash and go through third party banks, and Arkansas exports crashed to $2.7 million in 2005 and by 2012 and 2013 they were exactly zero.

The White House announced on Dec. 17 that it would end the Bush-era financing restrictions and return to the system that allowed American agricultural goods to be sold to Cuba. Completely lifting the embargo requires Congressional action.

Arkansas is the largest producer of rice in the United States, producing 50% of our country’s crop. Rice grown in Arkansas, other Delta states and across the country is very high quality.

Powell said “When I was in Cuba, the rice I had was frankly of very poor quality and I could only stand to eat it because I was on a diplomatic mission and wanted to be polite to our Cuban hosts, who were quite cordial. They would love to move up to high-quality rice from the Delta.”

Cuba currently imports most of its rice from Vietnam and other Asian countries, with some additional imports from Brazil.

Lower transportation costs as well as higher quality will give American producers an advantage. It takes six to eight weeks to import Rice from Vietnam, whereas American companies can move the goods in a few days in smaller ships that can stop at a large number of ports.

The island nation has a population of about 13 million people. Cubans consume about $225 to $275 million worth of rice each year, according to information in an article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (“In State, Growers See Trade Potential,” by Sarah D. Wire and Glen Chase, Dec. 18, 2014, page 1A).

Cuba is also a significant market for poultry and other products that are produced in abundance in the Greater Delta Region.

In addition to the Delta Grassroots Caucus, other organizations and leaders supporting trade to Cuba include (among many others):

-US Sen. John Boozman (R-AR)

–Gov. Mike Beebe (D-AR)

–Arkansas Farm Bureau

–American Agriculture Movement of Arkansas

–Tyson Foods, Inc.

–Arkansas Rice Federation and USA Rice Federation

–Riceland Foods, Inc.

–The Arkansas legislature has passed resolutions endorsing farm trade to Cuba

–The Agricultural Council of Arkansas