Harvard to Havana: An ag journey
Did you know that the distance from Burley to Havana, Cuba, is 2,242 miles – as the crow flies? From Boise: 2,385 miles. And from Harvard, Idaho, the distance is 2,511 miles.
Obviously, this is a strange question to ask, and strange points to make, if I don’t provide any context. The reason I thought readers might find these facts interesting is because these are the rough distances (give or take a few miles) that Idaho agricultural goods might soon be traveling to get to market – in Cuba.
Although the United States does have an embargo on trade with, and travel to, Cuba, food products and medical supplies are not included. In the past, I have said that food should not be used as a weapon or diplomatic tool against governments the United States may not agree with. I still believe that.
While we may not agree with the leadership of a nation, food embargoes only show a lack of humanitarian concern to the people of that nation. We can refuse to trade military weapons, electronics, oil, or a variety of other goods and services, but once we cut off the food supply, we effectively sentence the people, who often have little or no influence on government affairs, to starve. In exempting food from trade embargoes, the United States has rejected such measures.
On the flip side, American agriculture has a proud history of feeding Americans at home, and millions of people around the world. For most of our existence, the United States has been a net exporter of agricultural goods – we export more food than we import. However, this proud tradition is in trouble. In July and August of 2004, the United States imported more foodstuffs than it exported. Last year the United States had an agriculture trade surplus of $9.5 billion, but the 2005 surplus is projected to decline 75 percent, to a dangerously low $2.5 billion.
In times like this, it is important to help American farmers and ranchers by opening more international markets for them. Our producers know they can compete with anyone in the world and are always looking for new places to prove it.
One such place is Cuba, which also presents a unique opportunity for cultural and political engagement. The best way to change someone’s perception is to talk to that person, face-to-face. Stereotypes and rumors are best refuted with experience and personal contact. The United States has engaged other communist regimes, such as China, and this interaction has paid off. China has slowly adopted economic reforms that brought capitalism to Chinese citizens. When economic freedom sets in, political freedom eventually follows, because people finally get a taste of capitalism and liberty and want more.
Fidel Castro and his government will not last forever. Many experts believe Cuba is ready for economic and political change. When Castro is gone, the United States must be in a position to have a positive influence in Cuba if we are truly serious about bringing freedom and democracy to that island. We cannot be a positive influence from the standpoint of confrontation and isolation.
Unfortunately, there are some bureaucrats in the federal government who do not see it this way. Officials in the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control continue to seek new ways to isolate Cuba and make interaction more difficult. They do this by reinterpreting restrictions on trade with Cuba in such a way that American farmers and ranchers may find it practically impossible to sell their products there.
This would be a terrible mistake for our government to make. Since 2000, over $1 billion worth in food items have been sold to Cuba. Nearly $400 million in U.S.-produced foodstuffs were sold last year alone. These sales are done on a cash-only basis, and the United States buys no goods in return. It is one-way trade that directly benefits Idaho, because the Cubans are keenly interested in buying Idaho agriculture products.
Trade with Cuba is a win-win situation for the United States and for Idaho. Our farmers and ranchers gain a new market for their goods, just 90 miles off our coast, in a time of difficulty. And slowly but surely, we gain the ability to expose the Cuban people to freedom and democracy, principles President Bush so powerfully endorsed in his inaugural address. It’s an opportunity too good to pass up.