NORMAL — Cuba has “tremendous potential” as a market for Illinois agriculture, according to two Illinois Farm Bureau officials who returned this week from a trip to the island nation.
The meeting-filled, four-day visit included 18 farmers from around Illinois. There were no farmers from The Pantagraph area.
The goal of the market-study tours to various countries “is to train a cadre of leaders” on the issues involving exports and foreign markets and “make them more articulate spokesmen,” explained Tamara Nelson, senior director of commodities for the Illinois Farm Bureau that organized the trip.
“We came away from this trip seeing that there is tremendous potential for U.S. investment in Cuba and tremendous potential for U.S. sales beyond agricultural commodities,” added Adam Nielsen, the bureau’s national legislative director.
A 2010 study by the Center for North American Studies at Texas A&M University estimated that lifting the embargo would increase Illinois agricultural exports to Cuba by $6.6 million annually — a 15 percent increase over the state’s 2009 exports of $42.5 million.
Although sales of agricultural commodities to Cuba are permitted, U.S. regulations are cumbersome.
Nelsen said Cuba is required to pay cash up front before a ship leaves the United States and the money has to go through a third-party, non-U.S. bank, such as Canada or France, “adding unneeded regulatory burdens to both sides.”
Attempts to lift or ease trade and travel restrictions — such as allowing Cuba to pay after goods arrive — have met with little success. Nielsen offered no guess on when that might change.
Noting that the United States has normal trade relations with countries such as China and Vietnam, he questioned the logic of the continued embargo against Cuba. Nelsen said Illinois is a recognized presence in Cuba because of the numerous trade groups that have visited. “They think of Illinois for corn and soybeans,” she said.
Opening the market would have value for Illinois because of its huge exports and the decreased transportation cost of getting goods to a country as close as Cuba, Nelsen said, adding it also would help diversify and balance Illinois markets.
Nielsen noted that Cuba imports about 80 percent of its food.
“When you fly into Cuba, you see how little of their land is in ag production,” he said. “They are just one crisis, one horrible hurricane away from disaster.”