Three days after the President announced new restrictions on American travel and trade with Cuba, I led a delegation of Minnesota farmers, educators, and business leaders on a trade mission to that country. We saw firsthand that tremendous opportunity exists in Cuba for economic, educational, and cultural exchange.
There’s truly never been a better time for U.S.-Cuban engagement.
For a leading agricultural state like Minnesota, the export opportunities are immense. Cuba imports 80 percent of its food, $2 billion worth, from other countries. The Cuban people would benefit from access to American corn, soybeans, wheat, and dry beans. The Cuban leaders we met expressed interest in buying our agricultural products because of the quality and route efficiency. We also saw a significant opportunity for American businesses to provide the modern tools and technology for a self-sustaining agriculture in Cuba.
During our trip, we visited a Cuban farm, where instead of tractors and combines, the farmers were using oxen to pull a plow. This small farm required intensive physical labor and produced relatively little in comparison with the farms of the American Midwest. But Cubans lack more than farm equipment—they need fertilizers and other inputs and the working capital that modern agricultural operations rely on.
Despite the challenges facing Cuba, this can and should be a two-way relationship. Minnesota and Cuba, for example, could be great trading partners. We don’t grow cocoa, coffee, and tropical fruits in the North Star State, while Cuba needs the products that Minnesota produces.
Beyond commercial exchange, there are opportunities to trade ideas, too. During our visit, we talked with our Cuban counterparts about how to engage young people in agriculture, a growing concern in both countries as farm workforce shortages develop. And we share an interest around the use of agricultural co-ops, which allow farmers to pool their resources and more easily move their products to market. The Cuban co-op farmers we met expressed interest in learning more about our co-op model and how to build sustainable leadership and innovative techniques to sell their products.
After more than 50 years, the embargo has only sustained Cuba’s political regime by offering them a false foil: America. The embargo has been an immovable obstruction to reform, serving as a firewall that blocks American commerce, ideas, and exchanges that would move Cuba towards a more democratic future.
Recent polling suggests the American people are ready for change as well: 65 percent of registered voters support maintaining Obama-era Cuba policy. In Congress, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Congressman Tom Emmer (R-MN) are leading bipartisan efforts to eliminate legal barriers for Americans doing business in Cuba, which would stimulate job growth and create export opportunities for American businesses, while improving quality-of-life for people in Cuba. That legislation, to be clear, would leave in place current laws intended to address human rights in Cuba.
I encourage policymakers in Washington to enact reforms that will help create opportunities for American workers and the Cuban people. After 50 years of more of the same, it’s time to try something new that can be a win-win for both nations.
Tina Smith is the 48th Lt. Governor of the State of Minnesota. In June, she led a weeklong trade mission of Minnesota farmers, agricultural business leaders, and educators to Cuba. You can follow her on Twitter at @TinaFlintSmith.