Historic moment with Cuba presents opportunity for Maine businesses
Washington, DC, May 18, 2016
On the recent trade mission I led to Cuba, one thing was made clear over and over again—the embargo the U.S. has had on the country for over 50 years is not working in either country’s interest.
The embargo has not worked to end the Castro regime, bring economic reforms, or significantly improve human rights. What it has done has separated the people of Cuba from the free flow of ideas that could actually lead to change in the country.
The embargo has done nothing to help American businesses either. In fact, it has kept us from accessing a market just 90 miles off our coast. But that could change in the near future.
In late 2014, the U.S. government announced that it would reopen diplomatic relations with Cuba, relax some trade restrictions, and allow more American travel there. Since relations have begun to normalize, more American leaders have traveled there—including Maine Senator Susan Collins—and President Obama himself visited earlier this spring.
At this historic moment in U.S.-Cuba relations, I thought it was an important time for me to go there as a Representative. I wanted to see where diplomatic relations are headed and what kind of trade opportunities there might be for our state.
Joined by Luke Donahue of Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Maine and other important leaders in the country’s organic business community, I had a special interest in agricultural opportunities. A recent report from Texas A & M University found that reopening trade with Cuba would be worth over $1 billion to the U.S. agriculture sector alone and create more than 6,000 jobs for the industry.
We toured urban farms, markets, and restaurants, while meeting with the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba and top officials in the Cuban Ministry of Trade and the Foreign Ministry. We learned that, despite our differences, the two countries have a number of common goals, especially when it comes to agriculture.
The U.S. embargo and the fall of the Soviet Union have meant that, for several decades now, Cuba has had to produce most of its own food without access to synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. As a result, it has developed great organic farming practices that are well aligned with the kinds of small, diverse farms that have been so successful in Maine.
Lifting the embargo could be a good economic opportunity for our state, but a challenge lies ahead. As relations reopen, big chemical companies would love to come in with pesticides and GMO crops. I don’t think Johnny’s Selected Seeds or other Maine businesses would benefit from that.
I hope the country avoids that temptation and keeps the organic practices it has developed. To convince them of the value in staying organic, I brought along some our country’s largest organic food buyers and sellers—so Cuban farmers and officials could hear firsthand that the demand for organic produce in the U.S. is high.
The trip was a great success in getting our foot in the door and being ahead of the game in forming relationships. Officials from the Cuban Ministry of Trade were especially interested in our visit, asking me to bring more Maine businesses to Cuba to start building relations.
But, for things to really move forward there, Congress needs to lift the embargo—a move backed by everyone from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the Pope. I hope Congress takes action, so Maine businesses can capitalize on the opportunities of building bridges with our neighbors to the south.