Don't believe everything you read about the impact of U.S. economic sanctions on Cuba, says Tommy Ferrara. Cuba's people aren't starving, and they may do very well without any trade with the United States.
“The most glaring truth that came out of my visit to Cuba was the tremendous cost to the U.S. taxpayer and the U.S. rice industry as a result of the embargo,” says Ferrara, chairman of the U.S. Rice Millers' Association. “Cuba is doing just fine. We are the ones being held hostage by the embargo.”
Ferrara, who accompanied a group of U.S. industry leaders and three congressmen on a trip to Cuba in April, says Cubans have problems, resulting from its 42-year experiment with communism.
“The embargo has clearly caused hardships, but they are well-educated, have food to eat and are provided with health care,” he noted. “This is an island with 50 new hotels, none of which could be built by U.S. companies.
“Cuba trades with almost every other country, including our North American neighbors, Europeans and Israel. They don't understand why our embargo stays in place when we trade with Russia, Vietnam, China and North Korea.”
Ferrara, president of A.C.-Humko Rice Specialties in Greenville, Miss., said the Cuban economy has been in transition since the Russians pulled out of the country at the end of the Cold War.
“They recognize that system of government did not work and will not work to meet all the needs of their people,” he said. “During this time, the government has opened the country to investments from other nations on a partnership basis with individual companies.”
It's difficult to calculate the impact of economic sanctions on the U.S. rice industry, he said. But, it's safe to say that the total runs into billions of dollars in lost sales and American jobs.
Over the years, the U.S. government has allowed other countries to build rice-handling and processing facilities protected by differential tariffs. “We need tariffs eliminated or reduced on U.S. rice, and to have equal tariffs during any tariff phase-out,” says Ferrara. “Our industry can compete in any market if it's on a level playing field.”
He said Congress could level the playing field in Cuba simply by lifting the embargo. “In addition, we need PL 480 funds made available to Cuba for a minimum of three years to purchase up to 200,000 metric tons of rice annually.”
The chief stumbling block to such action: the Cuban exile community in Florida. “It's not hard to understand their feelings, but they seem to be willing to sacrifice any and all segments of the U.S. economy to maintain their position. And they seem to have a great hold on our politicians.”
Ferrara says rice industry members must ask their individual representatives their position on the embargo and insist on their help in lifting it and the restrictions included in sanctions reform legislation last year.
“The U.S. rice industry and the rest of the U.S. farm economy can't afford any more delays or red tape. We need it lifted now with the right to travel freely to and from Cuba for all Americans.”