Vilsack Tours Cuban Ag

Secretary Stresses Need to Allow Cubans Credit for US Ag Products

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Cuba imports $1.8 billion to $2 billion in food and commodities annually. The U.S. only provides about 16% of those sales, but at one time had 50% of the market, according to U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. (Map courtesy of Google Earth)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stressed the need to deal with legislation lifting trade-embargo restrictions with Cuba after the secretary led a trade delegation to the island this week.

The agriculture secretary and others met with several Cuban officials, including the vice president, minister of agriculture and the foreign minister. They also toured different areas and were spotlighted in Cuban media for visiting a local farmers market.

Vilsack told reporters in a conference call Friday afternoon that such visits would start to develop an agricultural relationship between the two countries. President Barack Obama announced late last year that the administration would seek to normalize relations with Cuba. While some barriers are coming down, Congress would still need to take action lifting restrictions on Cuban trade and travel to effectively achieve a normal trading relationship.

Credit for buying U.S. goods remains a sticking point in making significant changes in the agricultural trading relationship, Vilsack said. Cubans are still required to pay upfront, and that often requires working through banks in other countries to close sales. Such restrictions create barriers to sales. Vilsack said his Cuban counterparts "conveyed that message loud and clear as well."

He added that some Cuban officials hoped more could be done through executive orders by the president to lift some restrictions, but the secretary said the Obama administration is pursuing various avenues to help trade develop. Still, lifting restrictions on credit would require an act of Congress to change.

"The reality is many of the restrictions they are concerned about are indeed a result of the legislation," Vilsack said.

The U.S. delegation did encourage Cubans to start the process of going through the various risk assessments such as pest-risk analysis to detail under which circumstances products could come into the U.S. once the embargo is lifted.

The agriculture secretary said he also hoped at some point to be able to station staff in Cuba from the Foreign Agricultural Service as well as the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to help work through technical trade issues. The secretary pointed out that both Florida and Cuban citrus industries right now are under attack from the citrus greening disease.

When it comes to U.S. exports, Vilsack said Cuba imports $1.8 billion to $2 billion in food and commodities annually. The U.S. only provides about 16% of those sales, but at one time had 50% of the market. He said the U.S. could be competitive in several major commodities such as wheat, rice, poultry and corn.

The secretary pointed out Cuba has a strong emphasis on organic agriculture and urban farming. He also noted the demand for organic food products in the U.S. and indicated Cuban farmers could gain exports in that arena. That could require ensuring the countries' definitions of organic were consistent and other organic rules are equivalent.

"I did emphasize this could be an opportunity for them," Vilsack said.

Vilsack was joined on the trip by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon and U.S. Representatives Terri Sewell of Alabama, Suzan DelBene of Washington and Kurt Schrader of Oregon, all Democrats.

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Chris Clayton