I often say Kansans will try anything once – sometimes twice or even three times. But if we have been trying something for more than five decades and it has yet to work, it is time to change.
For a number of years, I have worked to modify the unilateral U.S. sanctions that restrict the ability of American farmers and ranchers to sell their products to Cuba. My interest in lifting the embargo stemmed from a desire to create an additional market for Kansas producers. But, a new economic and diplomatic relationship would also provide a better opportunity for our nation to promote the rights of the 11 million people living under the authoritarian Cuban government.
In July 2000, I offered an amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives to ease sanctions on the sale of food, medicine and agriculture commodities to Cuba. The agriculture community strongly supported this effort, but I was discouraged by Congressional leaders and told by many that the embargo would not be changed and the efforts were in vain. However, the amendment passed by a vote of 301-116 with broad support from both Republicans and Democrats.
Unfortunately, trade was severely restricted in 2005 by the Treasury Department. These regulations increased the cost of doing business with the United States and eliminated the competitive advantage that American farmers have when selling to a country just 90 miles off our coast. The embargo is unilateral – no other countries participate – so when we don’t sell to Cuba they import from our competitors. It costs $6-7 per ton to ship grain from the United States to Cuba, while shipping the same amount from Europe costs about $20-25. Industry experts estimate that U.S. wheat could grow up to 90 percent of the market share in Cuba if the trade restrictions are eased.
Cuba imports 80 percent of its food and is a natural market for U.S. agriculture, especially the hard red winter wheat grown in Kansas. In fact, wheat is Cuba’s largest food commodity import. But if it wasn’t for the embargo, the United States could supply the Cuban demand for wheat. In our absence, other countries are more than willing to enter this market. And just last year, Cuba purchased $150 million of wheat from the European Union.
Lifting the embargo is not just about providing a new market for our farmers; I believe economic ties would help change the nature of the relationship between the Cubans and their repressive government. Allowing U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba would further promote freedom and liberty by exposing Cubans to democratic thought and free market principles. A growing Cuban economy would increase the standard of living for Cuban citizens. It would also empower them to make greater demands on their own government to increase individual and political rights.
Last month’s release of Alan Gross – the American subcontractor for the United States Agency for International Development who was arrested and had been detained in Cuba since December 2009 – sparked a renewed interest in addressing U.S.-Cuba policies. There is now a growing coalition of individuals and organizations who are working to roll back the antiquated regulations. Both the U.S. agriculture community and Cuban people stand to gain by increasing commercial relations.
I was pleased to learn this week that the Treasury Department is following through on the decision to loosen sanctions related to travel, remittances, trade and banking with Cuba. As we continue to discuss the best approach to modifying U.S.-Cuba policies, I am hopeful that common sense and morality will prevail.