Article Published in Macomb Daily, Fort Clemens, Michigan
(This article was distributed nationally by the Scripps Howard News Service on May 24, 1999.)
If American farmers were permitted to export to Cuba, they would gain access to a market that is eager to do business with Americans, and that imported $400 million in grains and nearly $300 million in other agricultural products in 1996. The Cuban people would also benefit, and so would U.S. foreign policy.
Last January 5, marking the one-year anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba, President Clinton proposed allowing sales of seed, pesticide, feedgrain, and fertilizer (but not machinery or tools) to private farmers in Cuba, and sales of food to churches, charities, small businesses, and similar private groups. But when regulations for these sales were issued May 13, they were so narrowly drawn that they may result in little or no trade at all.
By targeting sales to Cuba’s private farmers, President Clinton has picked a single sector of Cuban agriculture, albeit an important one. Many cultivate land their family has held for generations, and they have long surpassed the productivity of the Soviet-style state farms. Today, five years after a reform that allowed farms and cooperatives to sell their surplus in farmers’ markets across Cuba, these private farmers are delivering the lion’s share of the market produce. This is an important first step toward a more productive, market-based agriculture. It provides a new source of income for farmers and market vendors, and it is improving the diet of Cuban families.
In interviews, these private farmers are clearly satisfied with their ability to sell surplus at market prices. Many say they have difficulty obtaining the inputs they want from the state’s central supply system, so they resort to informal networks. They would welcome a legal alternative source of supplies.
Yet it is not clear whether the Cuban government would permit sales under terms proposed by Clinton, to one sector only. The answer will only come after American companies travel to Cuba to test the waters.
However, there is another obstacle, this one imposed by the Clinton Administration. In addition to denying U.S. government credit for farm sales, the new regulations bar the normal commercial credit arrangements that enable trade to occur on every continent every day. Commercial credit would not enrich Cuba’s government one cent. The lack of it may raise U.S. prices, and in cash-poor Cuba, it may make U.S. exports impossible.
A better option comes from Sens. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., and John Warner, R-Va., simply to drop the embargo on food, agricultural inputs, and medicine.
Some will argue that this approach will lead to sales to the state, not private farmers. In fact, both would probably result. Change in Cuba seldom comes in a linear fashion. Foreign businesses that entered Cuba for mining ventures are now building hotels and running phone systems. Through informal means, investors find ways to pay their Cuban workers far above the average Cuban wage, and to seek out workers they want to recruit. Private restaurants and other family enterprises that started in the black market now operate legally everywhere on the island. It’s equally likely that American companies, given a chance, will find ways to sell everywhere their products are in demand. Less direction and micromanagement from Washington would permit those businesses to achieve more in Cuba.
Is it wrong to drop the food embargo if Cuba gives nothing in return?
A better question would be: Is it right to embargo humanitarian goods when we are not at war with Cuba?
When the Clinton Administration ended food and medicine sanctions against Libya and Iran last month, Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat said these sanctions give the appearance of “punishing innocent people as opposed to dictatorial regimes.” He was right. If America’s aim is, as Secretary of State Albright says, to “look beyond Castro,” we can start by looking at Cuba’s eleven million citizens not as embargoed enemies but as neighbors with whom – regardless of one man’s 40 years in power – we now intend to start building a better future.
Peters is vice president of the Lexington Institutue in Arlington.Virginia. A State Department official during the Reagan and Bush Administrations, he publishes studies on the Cuban economy and U.S. policy.
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