The U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba celebrated its one-year anniversary Wednesday with a renewed call to action to lift the embargo between the U.S. and Cuba and ease the way for trade for U.S. agricultural products.
The press conference featured keynote remarks from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who headlined the coalition kickoff last year and was described as "the first Administration official to publicly vocalize support for the lifting of the embargo, especially for agricultural products."
Vilsack spoke about the potential importance of the market, the value of being able to use promotion checkoff dollars in Cuba and the need to have U.S. Department of Agriculture officials present in Cuba.
"Until we have improved relations, we are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to accessing the Cuban market," Vilsack said. "We need people on the ground in Cuba to talk about our products' quality, quantity and stability of supply."
Earlier this week, the President’s budget was released and called for funds to expand local and regional procurement and relations with Cuba. Vilsack noted that USDA needs an in-country presence in Cuba to cultivate key relationships, gain firsthand knowledge of the country’s agricultural challenges and opportunities and develop programs for the mutual benefit of both countries.
Cuba ambassador José Ramón Cabañas was interviewed at the press conference, and several members of Congress were also in attendance, including legislators Reps. Rick Crawford (R., Ark.), Ted Poe (R., Texas) and Ralph Abraham (R., La.).
Crawford told the crowd, "We are punishing ourselves (with this embargo). Now is the time to take action."
Poe called for Congress to "lift the financial restrictions ... to allow American banks to take the risk and get American agriculture products overseas."
Abraham emphasized the proximity of U.S. infrastructure and products, saying, "With our shipping, trucking and ancillary services, we can get American products to Cuba in 36 hours."
Prior to the press conference, Vilsack met privately with representatives from the coalition. Ben Noble, executive director of Arkansas Rice, said, "When the embargo was put in place, there were decades where there were no rice sales to Cuba. Back in 2000, when the law was changed to allow cash sales, we saw an increase in activity. Unfortunately, that opportunity was shut down, and we lost one of our top export markets."
Also on Thursday, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Treasury announced that the second round of the U.S.-Cuba Regulatory Dialogue will take place Feb. 17-18 in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker will open the dialogue with Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba's minister of foreign trade and investment. For the remainder of the dialogue, experts from the departments of commerce, treasury and state will describe the regulatory changes enacted on Jan. 27, 2016, that affect the export and financing of certain goods and services authorized for Cuba and the challenges U.S. companies have identified to doing business in Cuba. The Cuban delegation will discuss the relevant parts of Cuba's economic system, including importing goods and services and conducting financial transactions.
“Our second U.S.-Cuba Regulatory Dialogue is another opportunity to work directly with our Cuban counterparts to better understand the way our two governments and economies can work together in support of the Cuban people,” Pritzker said. “Following my trip to Havana (Cuba) last year, I am eager to use this dialogue as a chance to make continued progress that benefits both countries.”
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew added, “Our successive actions amending the Cuban Assets Control Regulations are empowering the Cuban people. This dialogue — the second of its kind — will allow for discussion of evolving regulations and our efforts to continue to promote a democratic future for the Cuban people.”