CUBA CENTRAL NEWS BRIEF: Food as a weapon

For a century, the United States has provided food to nations out of the belief that hunger and famine undermine stability and threaten our values and our security. After attempts by Presidents Ford and Carter to embargo grain shipments to the Soviet Union backfired, it has been an article of faith that the U.S. would forswear the use of food as a political weapon. Recent efforts to attack a Cabinet nomination in the Senate and, separately, to derail legislation to promote food exports in the House, remind us how this principle is honored in the breach by policymakers who like to stick it to Cuba.

Sales of food to Cuba face fewer restrictions under the U.S. embargo than other products or services, but they are constrained by one significant limitation. In contrast to how we conduct sales of U.S. agricultural products to any other nation, the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (TSRA) prohibits any U.S. credit or guarantees for food exports to Cuba. Instead, Cuba must pay on a cash-in-advance basis.

No other country imposes this limitation on its farmers, and TSRA exacts a price. While Cuba has purchased more than $5.3 billion worth of agricultural commodities and food products over the last 15-plus years, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, our farmers could have sold far more. As Kansas Senator Jerry Moran told the U.S. Senate last month, “It costs about $6 to $7 a ton to ship grain from the United States to Cuba. It costs about $20 to $25 to ship that same grain from the European Union.”

U.S.-grown food should be attractive to Cuba, which depends on imports for 60-80 percent of its food requirements, given our advantages of quality, proximity, and price. But Cuba prefers to meet the majority of its food requirements by dealing with suppliers from other countries that can offer Cuba credit financing. As a result, it has cut back on food purchases from the U.S., which reached a high of $710 million in 2008 but fell to $232 million last year.

With this unilateral sanction, we raise the costs of putting food on kitchen tables for Cubans across the island, while giving away market share to our competitors. As Senator Moran said in a recent floor speech, “Keep in mind that when we don’t sell agricultural commodities to Cuba, somebody else does. … 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.”

For years, agriculture-state legislators like Senator Moran and Congressman Rick Crawford of Arkansas have pressed Congress to enact legislation that would allow U.S. farmers to sell into the Cuban market with credit financing. But they have been thwarted time and again by pro-embargo hardliners who castigate those who propose extending credit as offering concessions to “the Castro regime.”

Here are two cases in point.

President Trump nominated former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue to serve as Secretary of Agriculture. Every other Cabinet secretary nomination has been approved by the U.S. Senate, except Sonny Perdue’s, whose vote has been delayed over food sales to Cuba.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee, Perdue told the panel, “We would love to have Cuba as a customer,” but that Congress has to pass legislation to fix the financing issues that depress U.S. sales to the island.

“I think if we can get the private financing done there – and there’s some proposals already to do that – I think American agriculture both in the Upper Plains and in the Gulf Coast and the East Coast have a wonderful opportunity,” Perdue said in response to a question from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (MN). “That’s a country that’s hungry. I led a delegation there in 2010 in Georgia and they wanted our product. They could just not afford it and pay for it there based on the financial crisis that they were in. So, hopefully we can mitigate that.”

Following committee approval of his nomination, however, his path to a vote on the Senate floor was blocked by Senator Robert Menéndez of New Jersey, with the support of Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, because of the statements Perdue made on financing for U.S. exports to Cuba.

It wasn’t until both Senators had private conversations with Perdue, the contents of which have not been disclosed, that they signaled their willingness for his nomination to be voted by the Senate. We’re left to imagine what he promised them; as a reporter for the High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal put it, “whether Perdue has since changed that stance hasn’t been made clear.”

Then there’s the case of Rep. Rick Crawford (AR-1), champion of the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, the House bill to fix the agriculture finance problem. Nearly a year ago, pressure from the House Republican Leadership stopped Rep. Crawford from getting a vote on the House floor on his proposal, at a time when it was likely to pass. After receiving a promised hearing on the legislation last fall, he was told that pro-embargo South Florida legislators would work with him to move a version forward they could live with. Despite a well-organized effort to gather greater levels of support and co-sponsorship of the legislation, the effort seems sidetracked not just by the anti-Castro ideologues but by the Congress in a stand-still and dwindling days left before the summer recess for an agreement to be brought to the floor.

Consider where all of this leaves us. We have legislation to help Cuba feed its people with food grown in the U.S. lost in negotiation; an Agriculture Secretary nominee whose professed “love” for selling food to Cuba had to be smothered to get a vote on his confirmation; a Secretary of State who pledged that no bill to “weaken” the embargo would get President Trump’s signature until his policy review was done; and Senator Rubio assuring us the President plans to treat Cuba “like the dictatorship it is.”

Together, it’s a recipe for making food more costly and less available for Cubans and blunting the moral dimensions of U.S. foreign policy and leadership.

This week, in Cuba news…

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Cuba invites first UN rights investigator in a decade

At the invitation of Cuba’s government, Dr. Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, an Italian jurist who serves as a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council and Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, will conduct a five-day visit to Cuba beginning April 10, according to a UN statement. During Dr. Giammariano’s visit, the first by a member of the Council since 2007, she will meet with government officials and civil-society organizations in Havana, Matanzas, and Artemisa to examine human trafficking and prevention efforts on the island.

“My visit is an opportunity to … determine the progress made and the challenges Cuba faces in addressing trafficking for sexual and labor exploitation, as well as in many other forms of trafficking,” said Dr. Giammariano. “Particular attention will be paid to measures in place and those planned to prevent trafficking, to protect victims and provide them with access to effective remedies.” Dr. Giammarinaro will hold a press conference in Havana at the close of her trip, and her findings and recommendations will be featured in an official report to the UN Human Rights Council next year. A statement from Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs published in Granma said Cuba’s government invited the representative to examine the implementation of the country’s new “zero tolerance” plan toward human trafficking, which it submitted to Dr. Giammarinaro on March 30. A Special Rapporteur on the right to food was the last UN human rights envoy to visit Cuba.

Earlier this year, the U.S. and Cuba signed a Memorandum of Understanding on law enforcement and cooperation in areas including preventing human smuggling, and have held four technical exchanges on combating and prosecuting trafficking. For the last two years, the State Department has placed Cuba on its Tier 2 Watch List for trafficking in persons. The 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report found that despite having issues with human trafficking, Cuba is making significant strides to comply with minimum standards set forth in the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. The State Department had previously ranked Cuba as Tier 3 since 2003.

Cuba, Chile companies sign mining-waste extraction agreement

Comercial Caribbean Nickel S.A., Cuba’s state mining enterprise and the Chile-based consulting firm RM Accessories and Consulting LTDA signed an agreement April 4 to explore extracting minerals, particularly iron, from waste produced by nickel mining in Cuba’s Holguín province, reports CubaDebate. Under the agreement, the two companies will first conduct a feasibility study, with the goal of forming a joint venture to extract iron and other minerals from the slush of chemicals, water, and unused ore – also known as tailings – left behind as waste from the nickel mining process.

Nickel is one of Cuba’s top exports, and sharp declines in global prices for the metal have hurt Cuba’s economy; as Reuters reported, the drop in Cuba’s GDP last year – which occurred for the first time since 1993 – was partly attributable to decreased revenue from nickel exports.

U.S.-Cuba Relations

U.S. broadcasting company receives license to contract with Cuba state television

Cuba International Network (CIN), a Miami-based broadcast and video equipment company, has gotten the go-ahead from the U.S. government to work in Cuba on production and broadcasting projects on the island by U.S.-based and other foreign customers, reports the Miami Herald.  Under a license granted on March 20th by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control – after a 15-month wait – CIN can contract with Cuba’s state-run RTV radio and television network, supply recording equipment, and train and pay Cuban staff to work on audiovisual projects on the island.  CIN must still obtain permits from Cuba’s government in order to open its own facility.  Previously, international production companies and others working on events – for example, the March 2016 Rolling Stones concert in Havana, as well as U.S. movies and TV shows shot on the island – have had to travel with their own equipment, due to limited availability of AV equipment in Cuba. The CIN license will lighten the load for similar projects moving forward.

In Cuba

As drought continues, Cuba’s reservoirs now at just over one-third capacity

A severe drought, now in its third year, continues to leave many in Cuba’s eastern and central provinces with severe water shortages. According to the Associated Press, officials from Cuba’s National Institute for Hydraulic Resources (INRH) confirmed on state television that reservoirs nationwide currently hold just 38 percent of their capacity. Inés María Chapman, president of INRH, indicated that the effects of the drought have been exacerbated by outdated and faulty infrastructure.

According to the INRH, Cuba loses 45 percent of all water pumped through its pipes, part of the estimated total 3.4 billion cubic meters lost annually due to “inefficiency in the operation and maintenance of the hydraulic infrastructure.” The INRH is currently pursuing several measures to attempt to mitigate the effects of the drought, including digging deeper wells, seawater desalinization, and collecting and reusing rainwater as well as water in treatment plants.

Last May, during the drought’s peak, Granma reported that over one million Cubans had limited access to water. The drought, as EFE reported last month, the island’s longest in over a century, is affecting 94,000 Cubans and 71 percent of the country’s territory.

Recommended Reading

Florida Aquarium helps create underwater coral nursery in Cuba, WFLA

Tampa news outlet WFLA reports on the latest development in Tampa-Cuba marine cooperation, as divers from the Florida Aquarium worked with counterparts from Cuba’s National Aquarium to build an undersea coral nursery in Cuba’s coastal Guanahacabibes Peninsula National Park.

The Tampa Bay Times’ Paul Guzzo also reported on the project. The two aquariums began working together in November 2015, and have future projects planned, also focused on coral populations off the coast of Cuba.

Soccer beginning to gain foothold in Cuba, Tim Wendel, USA Today Sports

Tim Wendel looks at the growing popularity of soccer in Cuba, especially in Havana, as more people tune into international soccer matches and more children join youth leagues on the island. Cuba’s national team ranks 155th in world soccer rankings by FIFA, the international governing body for soccer, but fans on the island hope the team can work its way up. “Parks, empty lots and alleyways that were once home to baseball in and around Havana have been taken over by pickup or organized soccer games,” writes Wendel. “Baseball aficionados say the shift began a decade ago and could have a major effect on a nation that has seen its top baseball talent defect — often under perilous conditions — to sign lucrative contracts with Major League Baseball teams.”