It has been called “the Edsel of American foreign policy,” the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba that has now been in effect for half a century, and though for the most part a foreign policy failure, is doggedly continued.
Following President John Kennedy’s 1962 face-off with the Soviet Union over it’s establishment of missile sites just 100 miles or so from U.S. shores — the closest this country has come to nuclear war — the embargo on trade between the two countries was imposed.
With bearded guerilla leader Fidel Castro firmly entrenched as head of the government following the 1959 revolution he’d led, and the Soviets providing economic support, U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations were severed and there began the decades-long state of acrimony between the two nations.
In the process, Cuba’s people were cast into a time warp of 1950s-era poverty; U.S. citizens, forbidden to travel there, lost a nearby tourist destination; and American businesses and agricultural interests lost a significant market (American companies had already lost millions when the Castro government in 1960 took over all U.S.-owned businesses on the island, including the facilities of major oil companies).
Pre-revolution, pre-communism, Cuba was known as “The Pearl of the Caribbean.” It was the No. 1 tourist destination in the Caribbean, with luxurious hotels, racetracks, casinos, and a lively nightlife. American companies had extensive investments there (all taken over by Castro), and U.S. farmers had a major market there.
With the dissolution of the Soviet empire and the loss of its economic support, Cuba today remains mired in the economic and political doldrums.
Fidel Castro, frail and feeble, is still hanging on, with brother Raoul Castro continuing the family legacy.
Despite some easing of restrictions on both sides, U.S. citizens still can’t travel at will to Cuba and, although some U.S.-Cuba trade is allowed, the financing/shipping hoops that must be jumped through are so onerous as to discourage significant sales to Cuba. An example: rather than buying U.S. rice that could be shipped through a southern port and arrive in a few days, much of Cuba’s rice comes from Vietnam, requiring as much as a month of transit time.
In 2010, U.S. ag exports to Cuba totaled $370 million, down from the high of $711 million in 2008 and the lowest since 2006.
From 2001 through November 2011, the U.S. Foreign Agriculture Service reports sales of $834 million for corn; $781 million for poultry; $539 million for soybean oil/meal/flour; $505 million for wheat; $420 million for soybeans; and $190 million for rice.
Exports of importance to southern producers during that period included $144 million in feeds, $98 million dairy, $75 million pork, $41 million forestry; $26 million fats and oils, and $12 million cotton.
A 2012 study by Flynn Adcock and Dan Hanselka, Center for North American Studies at Texas A&M University, showed total southern (Georgia, Arkansas, Texas, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee) exports to Cuba in 2010 of $131.3 million, down 32 percent from 2009. Leading commodities were poultry, meat, grains, soybeans and products, animal feeds, and pork.
Of additional economic impact, they note, in most years all exports to Cuba flow through ports located in the southern U.S.; the total value of shipments through southern ports was $365.7 million.
Further relieving travel and export finance restrictions could add another $122.1 million in southern exports to Cuba, the authors say. “The South would reap big rewards if rice exports to Cuba began again and cotton exports increased.”
Much of the U.S. policy toward Cuba was designed in the Cold War era. Cuba long ago ceased to pose any military threat to the U.S., yet the standoff continues.
President Obama has indicated he favors continuation of the trade embargo.
This despite polls showing the majority of Americans favor ending both travel and trade restrictions and 70 percent think it’s time to re-establish diplomatic relations.