Mr. President, I come to the floor today to speak about legislation I just recently introduced, although it’s a follow-on to legislation that I pursued over a number of years. We’ve now introduced in this Congress The Cuba Trade Act. This is legislation which would lift the trade embargo to allow farmers and ranchers, small businesses and other private sector industries to freely conduct business – to sell products, agriculture products in particular, to the nation of Cuba, to its people.
Last month, I spoke about the terrific difficulties our farmers in Kansas and across the country are facing due to low commodity prices. The farm economy has fallen by nearly 50% since 2013 and that decline is expected to continue in 2017 making this perhaps if not the – certainly one of the worst – economic times, economic downturns in farm country since the Great Depression.
In 2016, the harvest in our state and across much of the country were record-breaking yields. Historic in their magnitude, in fact. What that means is there are still piles of wheat, corn and other grains all across Kansas just sitting on the ground next to the grain bins that are already filled to capacity. To sell this excess supply, our farmers need more markets to sell food and fiber that they produce.
Approximately 95% of the world’s customers live outside the United States borders. Markets in the United States, they’ll continue to grow and they’ll evolve and will continue to meet the domestic consumer demand providing the best, highest quality, safest food supply in the world. But, in order to boost prices for American farmers, we need more markets. We need them now. We need them in the future. And we need to be able to indicate to our farmers that hope is in the works in global markets. We’ve talked about the importance of trade, of exports in the United States, and particularly to the citizens of Kansas. But that is particularly true for an agricultural state like ours where, again, 95% of the consumers live some place outside the United States.
Cuba is only 90 miles off our border. They offer a potential for increased exports, of all sorts of products, but especially Kansas wheat. And in fact, while we’re introducing this legislation now, we started down this path to increase our ability to sell agricultural commodities, food and medicine to Cuba back when I was a member of the House of Representatives.
I offered an amendment then to an appropriations bill that lifted the embargo, the ability to sell, that would allow the ability to sell those food, agricultural commodities and medicine to Cuba for cash upfront. And that bill was passed. It was controversial then. This issue of whether – what our relationship ought to be with Cuba has always been contentious. But I remember the vote was about, I think, 301-116. A majority of Republicans and majority of Democrats said: ‘it’s time to do something different with our relationship with Cuba.’
This was a significant step in opening up the opportunity to market the products of American farmers and ranchers to that country. No longer was food, medicine and agriculture commodities prohibited from being sold. And it worked for a little while, but unfortunately, in 2005 the Treasury Department changed the regulations and it complicated the circumstance really related to the embargo.
Cuba imports of the vast majority of its food. In fact, wheat is Cuba’s second-largest import, second only to oil. And a point I would stress is that this is a unilateral sanction. Keep in mind that when we don’t sell agricultural commodities to Cuba, somebody else does. While our unilateral trade barriers block our own farmers and ranchers from filling the market, willing sellers such as Canada and France, China and others benefit at the American farmers’ expense. When we can’t sell wheat that comes from a Kansas wheat field to Cuba, they’re purchasing that wheat from France, from Canada, from other European countries. When the president’s rice crop can’t be sold in Cuba, it’s not that they’re not buying rice; they're buying it from Vietnam, China or elsewhere. It costs about six to seven dollars a ton to ship grain from the United States to Cuba. It costs about 20 to 25 dollars to ship that same grain from the European Union. This competitive advantage we lose because of the regulations that are in place that drive up the cost of Cuba consumers dealing with United States.
To understand what we’re missing out on in Cuba, consider our current relationship – trade relationship – with the Dominican Republic. The D.R. is also a nearby Caribbean nation with a comparable population as Cuba’s. Income levels and diet are similar. Between 2013 and 2015, the Dominican Republic imported an average of $1.3 billion in farm products. During the same time span, Cuba imported just $262 million. Over $1 billion in difference. That’s right: $1 billion of exports by U.S. farmers that are missing that opportunity because of the restrictions. This example illustrates the substantial potential that exists for increased sale of agricultural commodities to Cuba.
The Cuba Trade Act that I have just introduced seeks to amend our own country’s laws so that American farmers can operate on a level playing field with the rest of the world. While boosting American exports remains a primary goal of lifting the embargo, I also think there’s an opportunity for us to increase the reforms, to improve the lives of the Cuban people as well.
I've often said here on the Senate floor and on the House floor and back home in Kansas, we often say: ‘We’ll try something once. If it doesn’t work, we might even try it again. Maybe we try it a third or fourth time.’ But after more than 50 years of trying to change the nature of the Cuban government through this kind of action – through this embargo, many Kansans would say: ‘It’s time to try something else.’
The Cuban embargo was well-intentioned at the time it was enacted. Today, however, it only serves to hurt our own national interests by restricting Americans’ freedoms and to conduct business with that country. In my view, it is that time to make a change and we ought to be able to sell wheat, rice, and other agricultural commodities from the United States for cash to Cuba. And this legislation would allow that at no expense to the American taxpayer.