The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Thanks to a law passed in 2000, American farmers have made more than $100 million in sales to Cuba since last fall.
This week in Havana, farm products from 32 states will be on display at an agricultural fair where American farmers will try to expand their share of the Cuban market.
One might think that in an uncertain economy, with the farm belt battered by drought, the Bush administration would applaud the opening of an export market that has been closed for four decades.
But, instead, the administration’s Latin America point man, Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich, is slamming American farmers for their “apparently irrational interest” in sales to Cuba
However, quite rationally, American farmers see a country of 11 million people, about $1 billion in agricultural imports each year and strong incentives to buy American. If America captures half the Cuban market, U.S. farm exports will grow by 1%.
Reich warns that Cuba’s economy is a high credit risk – but Cuba has paid cash to American vendors, as required by U.S. law.
Reich claims that farm exports to Cuba harm the U.S. national interest because they are “delaying the transition to democracy in Cuba.” He predicts that, in private, Fidel Castro is saying, “Our system is going to be saved by the Americans, those fools.”
Finally, he insulted Minnesota’s Gov. Jesse Ventura, who will be in Havana next week with a delegation of agribusiness representatives. Reich’s message to the Minnesotans: “First, I would ask them not to participate in sexual tourism.”
Meanwhile, in Cuba, the arrival of American food has not prompted political controversy.
The Cuban people, it turns out, simply like American food. Last spring, they started talking about “fat chickens,” referring to the plump chicken parts arriving on their tables from Georgia.
Last month, an independent Cuban journalist quoted Bernarda Gonzalez, a retiree who bought American rice at her local market and sat in her Havana home “with a cup of rice in my hands, sprinkled with lime juice,” enjoying “the pleasure of tasting rice like I haven’t eaten in years.”
The journalist, Manuel David Orrio, reported that when the price of American apples was recently cut in half, “an apple-eating fever” ensued in Havana. Savoring a Washington state apple, a Havana student asked an American reporter, “Why does something so good have to be forbidden?”
The only losers in these transactions are foreign competitors who cannot match the price, transportation cost and quality of U.S. foods. Cuba’s top food buyer, Pedro Alvarez, told me that he typically saves 20 to 30% by buying American. Yet, in another slap at American farmers, the State Department refuses Alvarez a visa to meet potential suppliers in the United States.
Rather than begrudge American farmers a new market, the administration should follow the bipartisan Congressional consensus in favor of greater engagement with Cuba.
Reich is wrong to assume that the Castro government is on the brink of collapse, and that food sales are sustaining it. Economic misery did not bring political change to Cuba during the horrific economic crisis of 1992-’93 that followed the loss of Soviet aid. There is no evidence that the denial of American food exports will do so today, especially after a decade of modest economic growth in Cuba.
The Bush administration does not use food as a weapon against any country, not even against the “axis of evil.” Are American values really served if food is scarcer or more expensive for the average Cuban? If anything, the administration’s policy helps to stabilize Cuba’s government.
The trade embargo and travel ban insulate Cuba from a flow of people, commerce and ideas that would greatly amplify America’s voice in Cuba. The influence of American travelers and trade would benefit our foreign policy at a time when Cubans in all walks of life are considering how they will build their future when a new generation takes charge.
A Cuban priest once told me, standing on a Havana street corner, “There’s nothing positive in isolating a people.” The president should heed that advice and build a positive policy based on expanded American contact with all parts of Cuban society.
-Philip Peters is vice president of the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia.
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