It makes no sense to James Williams, and others pushing exports of U.S. farm products, why selling to Cuba is not easy.
While reality TV stars like the Kardashians and others can visit the island nation since American air carriers were cleared to fly there this past summer, the trek is still obstructed with barriers for Kansas wheat and other produce.
“We’re allowed to sell to Cuba, but we can’t do it competitively,” said Williams, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist and president of Engage Cuba, a coalition of private companies and organizations working to lift the U.S. travel restrictions and trade embargo with Cuba.
A group of Kansans, many of them representatives of state commodity organizations, formed a council that joined the Engage Cuba movement Monday — the 14th state to hop aboard a push to convince the U.S. House of Representatives to lift the Cuban embargo. Later that day, the 15th Engage Cuba state council was launched in Missouri.
As politics were at play in the nation’s middle, education was injected into the mix as two flour millers and a grain buyer from Cuba toured farms and facilities in north-central and eastern Kansas. They spoke through interpreters.
“That’s the reason why we’re here,” said Raisner Ramos-Vanega, the grain buyer.
Cuba hasn’t purchased any hard red winter wheat from the United States since 2010.
Tour of Cargill
“This visit allows us to take up the issue of importing wheat from the U.S.,” Vanega said.
The group concluded their American experience Thursday with a tour of the Cargill Ag Horizons grain terminal just west of Salina.
“We’ve been able to see it on the farm, see the seed quality-control systems and the lab tests.”
The result was “bueno,” he said. “We recognize the quality.”
U.S. wheat is good stuff, according to miller Jose Suarez-Linares.
“In general, it does very good in milling. It has good yield and good baking results, as well,” he said.
Despite a Cuban appetite for wheat being firmly established, there were no orders placed Thursday.
“Right now, Cubans can’t acquire from the United States. Transactions have to be in cash, and that’s not customary in international markets.” Ramos-Vanega said. “Also, there are laws that impede ships from going between the two countries.”
Would love to buy
The tour was organized and co-hosted by Kansas Wheat, IGP (formerly known as the International Grains Program) at Kansas State University and U.S. Wheat.
“They told me they would love to buy Kansas wheat, U.S. wheat,” said Marsha Boswell, a Kansas Wheat spokeswoman. “They have a lot of products that they would like to get from the U.S.”
Those would be in the category of other commodities, technology and health systems, Ramos-Vanega said.
“We’re about lifting the embargo, expanding trade and travel,” said Williams, of Engage Cuba.
The island country with 11.2 million people is a mere 90 miles from the Florida border.
An effort to ease restrictions passed the U.S. Senate this year, with support from Kansas Republican Senators Pat Roberts and Jerry Moran.
“The holdup is in the House,” Williams said, although the Kansas delegation in that chamber has shown support.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Fowler, sent a prepared statement Thursday: “As the only farmer in the Kansas delegation, I personally understand how important it is to sell Kansas crops around the world. I am also the only Kansas member of the bipartisan Cuba Working Group in the House. I have met with multiple high-level Cuban officials to encourage the sale of U.S. (products) to Cuba.”
House opposition rests in the laps of two Cuban-American representatives from south Florida — Republicans Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, according to Williams.
In short, he said, the U.S. is not allowed to finance the sale of products to Cuba, and the south Florida lawmakers want it to stay that way.
Efforts to reach Diaz-Belart were unsuccessful Thursday.
Engage Cuba had the votes to pass a simple bill this past summer that would open up trade, but the two from south Florida “went to the Republican leadership and threatened them, said they would resign from the leadership team if this went forward,” Williams said. “They don’t want any money going to Cuba. Their goal is to make the (Cuban) people so economically miserable that they will, hopefully, rise up against the Castro government.”
That’s been the goal for 55 years, he said, and “it hasn’t worked.”
Farmers and businesses are missing out on a marketing opportunity with distinct advantages over other nations, he said.
“We have a better quality and prices, based on convenience. We can get it there quicker and cheaper,” Williams said. “It’s a question of whether we’re gonna allow ourselves to be competitive. We’re now the No. 5 exporter to Cuba. We used to be No. 1.”
Tim is a veteran agricultural reporter for the Salina Journal.