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New Cuba Relationship Could Be A Boon For American Farmers

Two-thirds of the food Cubans eat is imported — but the reestablishment of ties with the U.S. could open opportunities for American farmers.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Farmers and ranchers in this country are among those who are enthusiastic about normalizing ties with Cuba. Two-thirds of the food that Cubans eat is imported, and the new policy could open up access to U.S. agriculture. As NPR's Jackie Northam reports, one of the challenges is making sure the rules are clear so farmers don't find themselves in trouble.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Dale Moore says the new Cuba policy is like a gift that fell unexpectedly from the sky. Moore is the executive director for public policy, better known as the chief lobbyist, for the American Farm Bureau Federation, which for several years has been pushing to normalize trade relations with Cuba.

DALE MOORE: We truly believe this is going to give us an opportunity to allow farmers and ranchers in the United States to be more competitive in the Cuban market and give us an access to a market of 11 million consumers.

NORTHAM: It's not as though American farmers don't already have access to Cuban markets. They've been allowed to export agricultural products such as soybeans, corn, rice and wheat under a law passed in 2000. It's a small but important market currently worth about 350 million dollars annually. Alan Tracy, the president of U.S. Wheat Associates, says for a while American wheat did well.

ALAN TRACY: I think our peak year might have been about 400,000 tons. That would've amounted to something of over $100 millions dollars. But we've actually fallen off the radar screen. I don't think we've sold anything to them for the last two or three years.

NORTHAM: Tracy says rice exports also dried up a few years ago, and other commodities have fallen off. Tracy says a big part of the problem is a complicated financing process. The U.S. demands Cuba pay cash upfront. He says the U.S. made it so difficult for the Cubans they went elsewhere, such as Brazil and China. Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the American Society and Council of the Americas, says financing could still be a problem because Cuba is on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

CHRISTOPHER SABATINI: The problem with being on the state sponsor of terrorism list comes a whole host of reporting obligations and even restrictions on what banks can do and what others can do in their relations with Cuba to avoid, perhaps, being accused, or even helping aid and abet terrorist activities or the financing of terrorist groups.

NORTHAM: President Obama has asked the State Department to review whether Cuba should still be on that list. Sabatini says it's critical that this and all other aspects of the new policy are clear, so it doesn't get ground down in regulations and partisan politics.

SABATINI: The problem is, though, is that none of the U.S. companies, or very few of them, will take these risks unless a very clear signal is sent - not just at the top, but all the way down to the regulators - that they're not about to get dinged or get called out in Congress or harassed if they pursue business advantages inside Cuba.

NORTHAM: For Tracy with U.S. Wheat Associates, the other challenge will be making contacts again to help sell wheat.

TRACY: The biggest step here is just the overall rapprochement with Cuba. If we can establish normal diplomatic relations, I think it will give us an opportunity to go down and talk to them again.

NORTHAM: Tracy says the challenges are worth it. The new Cuba policy, he says, could open up access to a potentially $1 billion market for U.S. farmers. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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