Trip to Cuba

March 19, 2009

Hello everybody out there in farm country. This radio commentary is brought to you by the Renewable Fuels Association, Wal-Mart Stores, Monsanto, and John Deere. They are all friends, supporters, and allies of a healthy farm economy and prosperous rural America. Thank you. And now for today’s commentary— I’m reporting to you today by phone – on the way back from Cuba. Our delegation of 12 was mostly farmers – all with a sincere interest in normalizing relations with Cuba. Our timing was good, because, while we were in Cuba, the Congress passed a stimulus bill that includes modest relief in tourism and trade. But we still have a long way to go. Here are some of my observations from the trip. Cuba has a population of 11 million people. They are warm, friendly, educated, and reasonably well fed – better fed than their skinny dogs and cows. They are importing 80% of their food and 60% of their fuel. They don’t have enough money to buy the fertilizer they need. They need corn and soy to feed their cattle, pigs, and chickens. The cattle didn’t look very good because they were trying to feed them sugar cane – not a good substitute for corn. However, they have been importing some distillers dried grain from the U.S., but not enough. Years ago, they made some money selling sugar. Now, their main sources of income are tobacco, nickel, and tourism. If the U.S. opened the door to tourism and trade, that would be a big boost to their economy. Our farm exports to Cuba would likely jump from 800 million dollars last year to 4 or 5 billion dollars. To really energize their economy, they will need to be willing to open it up and accept the market principles of capitalism, like China has, and Viet Nam. Right now, Cuba’s economy is in a strangle hold of government control. We visited a dairy farm where the father and son milked 25 cows by hand. They couldn’t even afford a milking machine. Most of the Cuban farm land is tilled by oxen – very few tractors. I saw no lawn mowers, almost no cell phones. Fifty years ago, a revolution swept across Cuba and Fidel Castro confiscated everything – farms, homes, businesses, everything in the country. And, to this day with the exception of some small farms and farmer co-ops, the government controls everything. We met with government officials. They desperately want trade and tourism from the U.S. It is embarrassing that we have kept the embargo in place all of these years. It should have been lifted years ago. Certainly, that tiny island country 90 miles from our shore is no threat to us. Until next week, I am John Block back from Cuba.