Jamie Walter believes a recent trip with members of the Illinois Farm Bureau was a small step toward improved trade relations with the island nation of Cuba.
Walter, who farms mostly corn just south of DeKalb, was one of about 20 people affiliated with the Illinois Farm Bureau who returned Monday from a four-day visit to Havana to see how trade works in Cuba.
“I was interested in going because as an Illinois producer, I’m always interested in where products go or have the potential to go,” he said.
Each year, members of the Illinois Farm Bureau travel to a foreign country for market study purposes.
During their trip last week, they spoke with major importers and discussed challenges for agricultural trade between the U.S. and Cuba.
“Cuba has been a market farmers wanted to go to for years, even though it’s not that big,” said Tamara Nelsen, senior director of commodities for the Illinois Farm Bureau.
A 50-year-old embargo applies some restrictions on agricultural trade from the United States to Cuba. Cubans must pay cash upfront for U.S. imports, and lots of paperwork is required in order to receive those shipments.
“It’s so cumbersome to deal with us that it makes it easy to turn to a country like Brazil, where there’s freer bilateral trade,” Walter said.
The embargo was put in place during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, which the U.S. hoped would spark a regime change that still hasn’t come to fruition. Recent hurricanes prompted the U.S. to loosen the embargo as a humanitarian effort.
Nelsen said Illinois producers miss out on about $6.6 million in agricultural export revenues from Cuba annually because of travel and financial restrictions. She said Illinois is the sixth-ranking state in terms of lost opportunities to Cuba.
“Illinois is probably the third-largest exporting state after California and Texas,” she said. “It’s not surprising we’d be the sixth biggest loser in exports to Cuba.”
When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, Cuba lost access to farm equipment and pesticides, which resulted in a surge of small-scale organic urban farms. Walter said those farms feed only 50 to 60 percent of the country’s population, and the rest is imported.
The location of the United States is one trade advantage producers here have over European and South American producers.
“Cuba’s a hurricane season away from a national disaster,” Walter said. “They can’t wait a month or two for food. The natural response would be to come to the United States again.”
Even with the embargo in place, Walter said he’s hopeful that the visit from Illinois producers will someday help broaden or even lift the embargo.
“It’s kind of a hot and cold market,” he said. “As far as a more consistent market, this trip was kind of a first step in creating those relationships.”