Heitkamp column: Cuba market critical for North Dakota farmers

WASHINGTON -- Between diplomatic meetings and historic speeches, we'll be doing something a little lighter on the president's landmark trip to Cuba today: Cheering on the Tampa Bay Rays at an exhibition game with the Cuban national team in Havana.


WASHINGTON - Between diplomatic meetings and historic speeches, we’ll be doing something a little lighter on the president’s landmark trip to Cuba today: Cheering on the Tampa Bay Rays at an exhibition game with the Cuban national team in Havana.

The U.S. and the Cuban people share more than just a love of baseball, though. Cuba also has a unique demand for crops we grow in the U.S. and particularly in North Dakota.
Visiting Cuba on this momentous trip with the president, cabinet officials and select U.S. lawmakers is an honor, marking the latest action to re-establish relations between our countries after years of tension. This is the first trip by a sitting U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge visited Cuba in 1928.
During the trip, I’m meeting with business leaders and members of civil society as well as Cuban government officials. We’re also expecting to watch the president deliver a speech and to enjoy a good game of baseball with American and Cuban players.
And as we chart a new course in U.S.-Cuba relations, I’m continuing to be a strong voice of North Dakota agricultural producers, just as I’ve been for several years.
For North Dakota farmers and ranchers, access to markets like Cuba is critical. North Dakota is the ninth-largest exporter of agricultural products in the country, and we sell an estimated $4.1 billion in those commodities to foreign markets each year.
But for 50 years, exporting to Cuba - a country just 90 miles from U.S. shores - has been hindered by an embargo on trade to the island nation. Even after lifting some restrictions in 2000, rather than buying high-quality North Dakota crops such as peas, beans, lentils and barley, Cuba has been importing food from countries such as Canada, Brazil and Vietnam.
Time and time again, farmers in our state have told me Cuba is an ideal market for their products. But with the current restrictions on financing agricultural exports, it’s tough to make a sale in Cuba because all purchases need to be paid in cash.
After I visited Cuba in 2014, I introduced a bipartisan bill to ease restrictions on financing U.S. agricultural exports. This is an incremental but critical step toward lifting the embargo completely, and it’s a step North Dakota farmers have told me would ease the biggest hurdle they face in exporting their products to Cuba.
Last fall, I met with Cuban President Raul Castro at the United Nations in New York to press his country to buy more U.S. agricultural products, as well.
My work to expand exports to Cuba picks up the work of former U.S. Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, both from North Dakota and both of whom fought for years to lower trade barriers for the benefit of farmers throughout the Upper Midwest. Their efforts helped begin opening up trade to Cuba, and this trip should help build momentum to pass my bill to ease financing restriction on agricultural exports.
Cuba is an important agricultural market, but there still are serious human rights challenges there. During this trip, I’m hoping the administration won’t shy away from shining a light on the repression political dissidents face. Our efforts to open up trade can’t obscure very real human rights problems that must change.
Still, it’s important to recognize the more we trade with a country like Cuba, the more influence we have to expand human rights. The 50-year embargo did little to improve human rights in Cuba. Now it’s time to give diplomatic engagement and trade a chance.
With commodity prices low, I know many North Dakota producers are challenged. That’s why it’s more important than ever to open up markets and lift producers’ bottom lines. Selling lentils and barley to Cuba won’t cure the low price environment - but Cuba is a market, and an important and close one for our state’s farmers.
Editor’s note: Heitkamp, a Democrat, represents North Dakota in the U.S. Senate.

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