Arkansans helped change tide on Cuban Embargo

GUEST COMMENTARY

Since 1961, the United States has had a trade embargo against Cuba that prevents widespread commerce with the country. The embargo’s original purpose was to destabilize the communist Castro regime in hopes that the country would eventually open up to democratic reforms. While I won’t argue the original intent of the embargo, it is evident that more than half a century later, the embargo has failed to reach its goal.

President Obama recently announced that the U.S. would restore diplomatic ties with Cuba and begin to loosen some of the economic sanctions now in place. I will give credit where credit is due and agree with the president’s decision and actions. However, the Arkansas blood running through my veins forces me to highlight a few hardworking Arkansans who deserve a pat on the back as well. There have been many Arkansas politicos who have supported lifting the embargo over the years and but for their perseverance and efforts, we might not be as close as we are to stopping that dog from barking up the embargo tree.

Former Arkansas Congressmen Marion Berry, Bill Alexander, and Vic Snyder, and Sen. Blanche Lincoln traveled to Cuba to highlight a need for rethinking the embargo during their tenure on Capitol Hill. And if memory serves, they all caught a little flack for their efforts at the time. All of them fervently believed that the best medicine for the Castro regime was a healthy dose of U.S. capitalism. More recently, Sen. John Boozman and Congressman Rick Crawford have also stated publicly that they support increasing trade with Cuba, showing that this issue isn’t about politics, its about helping Arkansas farmers.

And let’s not forget Hillary Clinton, our former First Lady of Arkansas who advocated for reexamining the embargo during her tenure as Secretary of State. One would have to believe that her position influenced our president to move forward with this decision. Why does it matter to us Arkies, you ask? Not only would lifting the embargo help promote democratic reforms in Cuba, but it would help Arkansas’s economy by letting us sell more rice, poultry, soybeans and wheat to our neighbors in the Caribbean.

Agriculture is our state’s largest industry. It employs one out of every six Arkansans and accounts for approximately $20 billion in economic activity every year. If Arkansas farmers could sell to Cuba, that number would grow even higher. Estimates on potential rice sales to Cuba hover between $225 million and $275 million in value annually  — and that is just for rice.

Arkansas is a natural fit for trade with Cuba. A large portion of the Cuban diet is rice. Cubans prefer high-quality long-grain rice, and Arkansas is the largest producer of rice in the country. Arkansas farmers produce the highest quality long-grain rice in the world. Right now Cuba imports rice of lower quality than ours from Asia and South America. Wouldn’t it benefit the Cuban consumer and the Arkansas economy to buy that rice from right here in the Mid-South?

Poultry meat is also popular in Cuba, but they don’t have the production capabilities to produce it on a large scale. Arkansas is the number two state in the country in broiler production and our poultry industry is growing. The American poultry industry is a natural fit for Cuban consumers.

The president made the right decision, and I give him credit. Thanks to earlier advocacy by folks like Hillary Clinton, John Boozman, Blanche Lincoln, Marion Berry, Rick Crawford, Vic Snyder, and Bill Alexander, we are closer than ever to lifting the Cuban embargo so that Arkansas can finally take advantage of this enormous economic opportunity. Because the more our farmers sell their crops, the more Arkansans will reap the benefits.

Butch Calhoun is the former Secretary of Agriculture for the State of Arkansas. Prior to his appointment in 2012, he served as the director of the Department of Rural Services, Prairie County Judge and an Arkansas State Representative. Calhoun has farmland in Prairie County that he farmed for over 30 years.

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