Agricultural opinions in Arkansas were upbeat about President Obama’s plan to move towards normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba, but political attitudes were mixed.
On Wednesday, Obama announced a plan to re-establish some diplomatic and economic ties between the U.S. and the communist island nation using Presidential authority and actions.
The move comes on the news that the administration had secured the release of an imprisoned U.S. contractor, Alan Gross, in exchange for the U.S. freeing three Cubans. Negotiations tied to the release have been ongoing for nearly a year.
Obama announced a list of possible changes to improve relations between Cuba and the U.S. Some of those issues include Cuba’s designation of being a state sponsor of terrorism, trade issues, increasing telecommunications links and expanding travel to the country, Obama said in a midday speech at the White House.
While trade issues were mentioned, the long-standing U.S. trade embargo to Cuba, which has been in place since the early 1960s, is in federal law and would have to be repealed by Congress.
Obama said the new rules he’s proposing will allow agricultural equipment for small farmers to be sold.
AGRICULTURE, DELTA SUPPORTERS WEIGH IN
Locally, the possible change in the 54-year old policy could have an impact on Arkansas agriculture.
"The announcement that the United States is moving to normalize trade relations with Cuba is good news for Arkansas’ farmers and ranchers," said Zac Bradley, director of public policy-national affairs for the Arkansas Farm Bureau. "For years, Arkansas Farm Bureau has sought an easing of trade restrictions with Cuba. This announcement should make it easier for this important market to purchase Arkansas agricultural products, in particular, rice and poultry."
Bradley said it has been a hardship for U.S. farmers to compete with other countries because American exporters have to use third-party banking resources to transact deals, while other countries can deal directly with Cuba. A normalization of relations could alter that detrimental factor.
"Arkansas leads the nation in rice production and is a leading producer of poultry products, two commodities that are an important part of the Cuban diet. We did a good amount of trade with Cuba before the embargo and would stand to regain a foothold there when trade is normalized," he said.
The president of the Poultry Federation, Marvin Childers, agreed the policy change could create a much more efficient, less expensive way to trade. Childers, a former Republican state representative from Blytheville, said producers have been able to trade with Cuba since 2001, either through third-parties or paying up front. Childers said on average, at least nine million pounds of poultry is sent to Cuba each month.
"Today’s announcements are good news for the Cuban and American people," said Dow Brantley, an Arkansas rice producer and chairman of both the Arkansas Rice Federation and national USA Rice Federation. "We’ll be looking for ways to tap into potential markets there to help people on both sides of the equation."
"Arkansas produces 50% of the U.S. rice crop and we are looking forward to reintroducing the Cuban people to top quality rice," added Ben Noble, executive director of the Arkansas Rice Federation.
Lee Powell, Delta Grassroots Caucus director, said while his group does not support the authoritarian policies of Cuba, the American embargo has not worked and it is time for new thinking.
"The embargo has done absolutely nothing to change Cuba’s authoritarian regime, and when a policy has not worked for 50 years it’s just common sense that it’s time for a change," Powell said. "Once capitalism starts infiltrating Cuba, this will undermine the communist regime."
Cuba’s economy is small compared to other world import-export opportunities. Cuba has a population of around 11.28 million, or just 0.16% of the world total. In 2013, it imported $13.6 billion worth of goods.
The GDP per capita (measure of productivity and lifestyle) in Cuba is $10,200, well below that of top U.S. trading partners (Mexico, $15,600; Euro area, $34,500; Canada, $43,100), according to the CIA World Factbook. The U.S. per capita GDP is $52,800.
ELECTED OFFICIALS RESPOND
The announcement Wednesday also brought different responses from state and federal officials with ties to Arkansas.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., called the announcement a “step in the right direction,” saying he has supported lifting the embargo since he was a House member.
"I feel like you have to be consistent," Boozman said of the United States’ trading with China, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, but not with Cuba.
Boozman, who serves on the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the opportunity to trade can “change the world” by trading in commerce as well as ideas. Boozman, who will become the state’s senior senator in January, said the state’s rice farmers and poultry producers would benefit from a possible change.
U.S. Sen.-elect Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said a possible change in policy would be troubling.
"I welcome the news that U.S. aid worker Alan Gross is free after five long years of wrongful imprisonment in Cuba, but his inclusion in a prisoner swap with men convicted of espionage and other crimes is deeply concerning," said Cotton, who will serve on the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees in the new Congress.
"This exchange and the broader changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba announced today are more troubling examples of President Obama’s tendency to seek peace through appeasement. This is a dangerous approach. Little has changed in Cuba over the past five decades, yet we’ve given into their demands," Cotton said.
"This type of diplomacy hurts America’s leadership and sends the wrong message to our enemies around the world. Normal diplomatic relations with Cuba can only truly exist when they recognize the principles of freedom and democracy."
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, also echoed the statement made by Cotton.
"While I share in the joy of Alan Gross and his family, I am concerned with the President’s willingness to trade the values of our nation. Too many Americans have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom and the freedom of other nations to negotiate with a communist dictator notorious for the oppression of his people," Womack said.
Meanwhile, other officials took a wait-and-see approach with the announcement.
"While I welcome the restoration of trade between the U.S. and Cuba on behalf of Arkansas agriculture and manufacturers, Congress must proceed with caution and deliberation in response to the president’s decision," said Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee. "I pledge to lend my voice and the voice of Arkansas businesses to what promises to be a thorough and robust debate.”
Matt DeCample, spokesman for outgoing Gov. Mike Beebe, said Beebe has supported a review of the trade policy. “Governor Beebe has continued to encourage a re-evaluation of American trade policy with Cuba since his visit there in 2009. If today’s developments lead to more open markets, it will mean only good things for Arkansas agriculture and our state’s economy,” DeCample said.