INDIANAPOLIS – Less than two months after the U.S. Embassy re-opened in Cuba, Indiana farmers are taking the first steps toward re-establishing trade with the communist country.
Later this month, agriculture experts will visit Havana to learn more about selling Indiana crops to a nation that’s been behind a 55-year-old trade embargo enforced by the United States.
“We have a lot more questions than we have answers,” said Bob White, of the Indiana Farm Bureau, who’s making the trip with representatives of corn and soybean growers, agricultural economists from Purdue University, and others in a 15-member delegation.
White said the embargo, imposed a year after communist leader Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba, has left the island without infrastructure to resume trade quickly.
In addition, plenty of political obstacles stand in the way.
“It’s a brave new world there,” he said. “For us, it’s a matter of, ‘Let’s go see what we’ve got to do.”
Indiana farmers export about $4.8 billion in products, from pork to watermelons. About one-third of Indiana corn is sold internationally, White said.
Farmers here have eyed Cuba as a possible new market since December, when President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations that were cut off in 1961, a year after former President Dwight D. Eisenhower imposed the first trade embargo.
Some American farmers have sold products to Cuba since then; Congress in 2000 slightly lifted the embargo to allow limited exports of medicine and food. But limits are strict, and Cuba must pay cash, in advance and through a third country, for whatever it buys.
Last week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with former Sen. Richard Lugar to discuss details of U.S.-Cuba relations. Next week, Lugar, an Indiana farmer before he sought elected office, is scheduled to meet with White and other Farm Bureau representatives going on the trip.
Lugar, a Republican, has long supported restoring relations with Cuba, saying the embargo has harmed Cubans and failed to achieve its goal of toppling the communist regime.
White expects Lugar to tell them more about what they already suspect — doing business with Cuba will require months, if not years, of groundwork.
“We think of Cuba as being open, but it’s not open yet,” he said.
Another obstacle is political. While Obama moved to re-establish diplomatic ties, lifting the embargo is up to Congress. That effort still faces significant opposition, including some from the Indiana delegation.
U.S. Sen. Dan Coats is a leading critic of the president’s efforts to normalize Cuban relations, expressing concern about the risks to taxpayers of doing business with Cuba’s government-controlled financial system. He declined to comment on the Indiana agriculture trip.
Paul Johnson, with the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, said agriculture in the country is undergoing a massive shift as the Cuban government eases restrictions in an attempt to feed more of its people and grow crops, such as sugar and tobacco, for sale in the United States.
Johnson, who also will be on the trip, represents a coalition of more than two-dozen U.S. food and agricultural interests including the National Chicken Council, National Turkey Federation and the food conglomerate Cargill.
Cuba, which is now caught in a serious drought, currently imports more than 70 percent of its food from countries outside of the United States, he said.
As Cubans seek to change that, Johnson said American farmers can step in with their know-how, even before they begin to trade.
“It’s going to be a slow process of moving toward a more open market,” he said. “But farmers in Cuba are saying, ‘We need more help here.’”
Maureen Hayden covers the Indiana Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden