Obama Calls for New Cuba Policy: U.S. Rice Industry Gains are Possible
WASHINGTON, DC -- (December 17, 2014) -- President Obama announced today that he is updating the U.S. Cuba policy, including reestablishing diplomatic relations between the countries after more than 50 years, and promoting travel and commercial opportunities between the two countries.
Central to the President's initiative is a new approach to banking, allowing U.S. and Cuban banks to have direct relationships.
"The changes to banking are very important because they will significantly reduce red tape and costs associated with doing business with Cuba," said Betsy Ward, president and CEO of the USA Rice Federation. "Since the mid-1990's USA Rice has taken leadership among commodity groups in calling for an end to the economic and travel embargo on Cuba, so we're encouraged by today's announcement."
Ward said her organization has long maintained that the "embargo was not on Cuba, as they could source rice and other products from around the world, but rather on the rice growers in the U.S., whose own government cut them out of one of the world's top markets, just 90 miles from our shores." She added that USA Rice is also a founding member of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba (USACC), a group dedicated to lifting the embargo.
"USA Rice was the first U.S. group of any kind to exhibit at the 2001 Cuba International Trade Fair, the first such participation in any Cuban trade fair in more than 40 years," said USA Rice's Marvin Lehrer. "This historic action, taken under extraordinary and difficult circumstances, was among those cited by the Government of Cuba as a motivation in making the first purchase of U.S. rice since 1961 and garnered worldwide media attention."
Sales rose steadily reaching 176,631 metric tons in 2004, representing about 30 percent of Cuba's import needs. Since then, imports fell and no sales have been made since 2008 - due to further U.S. government restrictions on definition of "cash in advance" and banking terms with Cuba.
As a major consumer and importer of rice, and once the largest market for U.S. rice, Cuba is uniquely positioned to once again become a major market for the United States, which offers easy logistics for exactly the type of rice Cubans demand.
"Today's announcements are good news for the Cuban and American people," said Dow Brantley, an Arkansas rice producer and chairman of the USA Rice Federation. "We'll be looking for ways to tap into potential markets there to help people on both sides of the equation."
"As we wait to see what the long term political implications of this decision are, today's announcement is an important step forward towards establishing a valuable new market for U.S. agriculture," said Representative Ted Poe (R-TX). "Easing trade restrictions to take advantage of the high demand for rice in Cuba would provide a new market that would benefit rice farmers in Texas and around the United States."
"While this appears to be an early Christmas present to rice farmers and the people of Cuba, banking restrictions will need to be completely liberalized in the future for free and unfettered trade to take place," added Ward.
Photo caption: Fidel Castro samples U.S. rice at the 2002 Havana International Trade Fair.