President Trump's announcement he was rolling back many of the Obama administration’s overtures to Cuba today (June 16) brought a barrage of criticism, much of it from members of his own party in Congress and from farm organizations whose members mostly voted for him.
The criticism began rolling in before the announcement. Thursday night the Engage Cuba Coalition condemned reports the president would roll back Cuba policy in an announcement today. The Coalition, which includes a number of conservative groups, urged the president not to further restrict travel to and trade with Cuba.
“It’s exceedingly clear that even President Trump’s own political base would not support a rollback of current policy toward Cuba,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba. “A decision to add job-killing regulations that make it harder to trade with and travel to Cuba would unnecessarily burden the U.S. business community and limit American freedom.”
Coalition members sent an open letter to the president urging against a roll back and asking Congress to lift the Cuban Embargo, instituted not long after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959.
"This policy was clearly written by people who have never been to Cuba, at least not in this century," said Williams. "Because if they had, they'd know that the only thing restricting travel will do is devastate Cubans working in the private sector who have relied on American visitors to provide for their families. The idea hat after 55 years of failure, going back to isolationists policies will produce any results is insane."
‘Outdated, isolationist policy”
The criticism escalated following the president’s announcement he was changing some of the policies implemented by Obama.
“I strongly oppose President Trump’s decision to reinstate a failed, outdated, and isolationist posture towards Cuba,” said Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., author of legislation aimed at increasing the flow of agricultural products to Cuba.
“This policy change is not just a missed opportunity for rural America, which would greatly benefit from increased access to the island’s $2-billion agricultural imports market. This policy shift also poses an unjustifiable risk to our national security, as further U.S. disengagement opens up opportunities for countries like Iran, Russia, North Korea, and China to gain influence on an island 90 miles off our coast.”
Crawford, who represents northeast Arkansas, said restricting travel and trade and limiting “our ability to export American democracy and values will hinder efforts to improve human rights and religious liberties in Cuba. I strongly urge reconsideration of this decision, and as policy changes continue, I will work with the president to find more productive ways to bring about change.”
The USA Rice Federation, which has become increasingly vocal in criticizing the president’s statements involving agricultural trade policy, was no less strident in its comments about the revisions to its Cuba policy.
'Anti-Cuba' economic advisers
“For months USA Rice has been warning that some of President Trump's key economic advisors are decidedly anti-Cuba and could influence the otherwise pro-trade President to take an anti-trade stance with regard to the Island,” USA Rice said in an article in its daily e-newsletter..
“Those forces may have carried the day, at least for now, with the president expected to announce here today that he is asking the Commerce and Treasury Departments to take the next 30 days to rework some policies put in place by his predecessor, President Obama”.
USA Rice officials said they expected there to be a ratcheting down of travel allowances, or at least more stringent enforcement of the existing policies. “However, in what is an unclear but possibly harmful development for agriculture, the President will likely attempt to ban any commercial dealings with the Cuban military.
“In a country where the lines between government and industry are blurred, the impact this shift could have on relationships with Alimport, the official government importer of agricultural products, is uncertain. We continue to advocate for the normalization of commercial trade and business relationships with the people of Cuba,” they said.
“Returning to policies that have not only not worked for half a century, but also harmed American farmers is not in the interests of the rural citizens who helped elect President Trump and who he said he was going to put first.”
The American Farm Bureau Federation’s response was a little more low-key, but still critical of the president’s decision to keep a campaign promise to undo portions of the Obama legacy of more open trade with Cuba.
‘Exercise caution on Cuba’
“We urge the administration to exercise caution in rolling out any new restrictions on doing business with Cuba that would limit our agricultural export opportunities,” said AFBF President Zippy Duvall. “We should be doing more, not less, to encourage U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba.”
Duvall, a farmer from Georgia, also noted Cuba imports nearly $2 billion of food products annually. “Currently, because of some remaining restrictions, the United States sells about $200 million in agricultural products to Cuba, but that nation represents the kind of growth opportunity America’s farmers and ranchers need during this challenging economic period.
“Self-imposed trade restrictions have kept America’s farmers and ranchers from competing on a level playing field and have closed off one of our nearest ag export markets. Cuba has not purchased any rice or wheat from the U.S. in many years, instead buying from other countries around the world. As we cope with the biggest drop in farm prices in decades, we need to be opening up markets for American farm goods, not sending signals that might lead to less access.”’
The American Soybean Association also issued a statement opposing Trump’s executive order, saying it means the United States takes a step back in its effort to increase opportunities for trade with Cuba.
“Today’s action by the White House to roll back the progress made by the Obama Administration to open the Cuban marketplace to American investment is troubling,” said John Heisdorffer, ASA vice president and Iowa farmer. “As the farm economy continues to lag, we should be increasing our opportunities, not limiting them.
“This decision has put in jeopardy the progress we’ve seen to date in Cuba and stifles our future success in that market by limiting our ability to create normal business and trade relationships with importers in Cuba, just like we do with almost every other nation. These include normal banking, credit, and market development relationships.”
Heisdorffer said such relationships have helped soybeans lead the nation in agricultural trade. “We export our soybeans, and the products that our soybeans go into, like meat and cooking oils and others. For us to continue developing and expanding upcoming markets like Cuba, we need a progressive attitude from the White House on trade, not a knee-jerk reaction to what a previous administration has done.
“We sincerely hope the White House will reconsider its course on Cuba, and we’re more than willing to sit down and explain what a more productive course might include.”
The two U.S. wheat organizations – U.S. Wheat Associates and the National Association of Wheat Growers – seemed to dismiss the president’s announcement on Cuba, instead urging Congress to simply end the U.S. embargo.
“Even as President Trump announces changes to current travel and trade rules with Cuba,” the groups said in a joint statement, “We are hopeful the increasing public and congressional support for more open trade will lead to an eventual end to the U.S. embargo.
Steps forward and back
“This is a political process and that means there are going to be steps forward and back,” said USW President Alan Tracy. “Our organizations support measures that move toward ending the embargo. Cuba is a significant wheat importing nation and our farmers can supply high-quality wheat at a lower cost than Cuba pays now to import European and Canadian wheat.”
Tracy said that while wheat is an important food grain that should be above politics, “the embargo will likely have to end before wheat farmers can help meet the increasing demand for agricultural products to help feed the Cuban people.”
“Wheat growers are facing significant economic hurdles and need more markets,” said David Schemm, a wheat farmer from Sharon Springs, Kansas, and NAWG President. “NAWG supports the effort to end the embargo on Cuba because it is what is best for our farmers. And farmers like me know that agricultural trade is a proven way to foster stronger and more productive ties with folks who live outside the United States.”
Earlier this week, Arkansas’ Rep. Crawford and Sen. John Boozman wrote an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal that said there was a path forward for the president on Cuba trade that would help American farmers and the Cuban people without repealing the embargo. To read the Op-Ed, click on https://www.wsj.com/articles/open-cubas-market-to-u-s-farmers-1497396058.