Weekly Columns

New data released by the U.S.-Cuba Trade Economic Council shows that Arkansas’s agricultural producers continue to lose out under Washington’s current restrictive trade policy with the island nation.

The top two commodities Cuba purchased from American producers in 2017 are among the top commodities produced in Arkansas—chicken leg quarters and soybeans.

A deeper dive into the data shows that chicken and soybean products make up over 80 percent of the total food product/agricultural product exports from the U.S. to Cuba last year.

According to the Arkansas Farm Bureau, the Natural State has about 2,500 farms that produce chicken. Arkansas is the tenth largest soybean producing state and exports almost half of the state’s crop.

In theory, the Cuban market is ripe for Arkansas’s poultry and soybean producers. Add rice to that list, which is a staple of the Cuban diet, and you have the potential for a significant economic boost for our state.

In reality, however, this is not the case.

U.S. producers are still unable to fully tap into the market because federal law does not allow private financing for agricultural trade with Cuba. This misguided policy creates a major roadblock to trade with the cash-strapped island nation. 

There is a bipartisan solution to this problem. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and I introduced the Agriculture Export Expansion Act to lift the ban on private banks and companies offering credit for agricultural exports to Cuba. This would help level the playing field for exporters across the country and support American jobs.

This commonsense solution does not put the American people on the hook for business deals with Cuba. It simply removes the regulatory barrier banks and companies run into when trying to offer private financing to Cubans for the sale of U.S. agricultural commodities. Private lenders would assume all the risk.

Nearly all international trade relies on credit. Current U.S. policy restricts trade with Cuba to cash-only transactions, putting American farmers on the sidelines while competitors like China, Vietnam and Brazil actively engage in Cuba’s $2.4 billion market. 

Removing this restriction would help level the playing field for Arkansas’s farmers and exporters while simultaneously exposing Cubans to American ideals, values and products.

That last point is important. Following Fidel Castro’s death, then President-elect Trump said, “Our administration will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty.”

I share the President’s desire to see democracy take hold in Cuba, as well as his commitment to ending human rights abuses carried out by the Castro regime. I encourage him to consider a more effective approach of opening a line of communication and building a working relationship with governments in need of democratic assistance.

Trade between nations creates that open line and builds those relationships, allowing for the type of person-to-person contact that can bring real change to the world. In normalizing trade relations, you not only trade goods, but ideas. The two go hand-in-hand. Normalizing relations will allow us to remain competitive and create jobs at home, while pushing for human rights and democratic change in Cuba. 

Passage of the Agriculture Export Expansion Act would be a small step in that direction, but a big victory for American farmers and the Cuban people.