The brand-new bus and Honda on the road next to the 1949 Chevy and a donkey pulling a cart. Beautiful resorts along the coastline not far from primitive rural areas.
"It's the largest island in the Caribbean, but we don't know a lot about it," Warsaw farmer Joe Zumwalt said. "It's amazing Havana is only 70 miles from Key West and such a different culture so close to us."
But it's a country, Zumwalt said, that's been put on pause in some ways -- just like most U.S. trade and travel with the Caribbean nation thanks to restrictions dating to the 1950s.
An Illinois Farm Bureau market study tour, which wrapped up in July, gave Zumwalt and other Illinois farmers a chance to visit Cuba and meet with officials, business leaders and cooperatives working to meet the socialist nation's food needs. Now back home, the group can tout the value of U.S.-Cuba relations and fight against the sanctions that forced the Caribbean nation to look for other trade partners.
"They replaced products we take for granted from here with an alternative from another country. It is a lost trade partner on our part," Zumwalt said. "They do get a lot of corn and soybeans from the U.S., but the majority of their meal and oil comes from Brazil. We do trade some poultry products. We do have a place in their market, but it could be so much greater considering their proximity to us. The reasons why we aren't trading with them were 50 years ago. Maybe they're not as pertinent or applicable as they were then."
Zumwalt said the market study tours boost interest in opening trade with various countries, including Cuba, and in international opportunities for Illinois farmers.
"Here is a partner hungry for agricultural products. We're a main state that can export those products to them," Zumwalt said. "It's not a huge market, but the close proximity impacts jobs and trade here in Illinois."
The average Cuban survives on the equivalent of $20-25 per month in a country that still raises plenty of sugar cane, coffee and vegetables. Crops are completely organic, not to tap into value-added markets but out of necessity because farmers don't have money to buy the commercial fertilizers and herbicides commonly used in the U.S.
"The Cubans still have a system where everyone is given a booklet with coupons redeemable for the very basic rations -- things like eggs, powdered milk, meat products, potatoes and rice -- at a subsidized price," Zumwalt said. "A lot of cooperatives, a certain portion of what they grow goes into that program. After they fill the quota, then they can sell at farmer's markets and charge market price."
The huge American influence, visible in many other Caribbean nations, is absent in Cuba. "Cuba is influenced by everyone but us," Zumwalt said.
The Caribbean nation, a one-time wealthy country known as a playground for North America, still relies on tourism.
"They have almost 3 million tourists a year. On top of that, 400,000 Americans make it to Cuba every year, with a fair amount coming through tours like ours," Zumwalt said.
The trip proved eye-opening about both the Cuban culture and the importance of trading and interacting on a global basis.
"I used to sell corn to the elevator and that was the last I saw of it," Zumwalt said. "When we see trade across the globe and the products I grow consumed by Cuba, we start thinking on a scale larger than ourselves. Once we open barriers, it becomes a global agricultural economy, something we need to have in the back of our minds when we're making policy and doing our own production here at home."
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