Cuba purchased more than $5.2 billion in U.S. products from 2001 to 2015, largely agricultural products.
For many of those years, the U.S. was Cuba’s largest supplier of agricultural products. U.S. exports to Cuba rose from about $7 million in 2001 to a high of $712 million in 2008, far higher than in previous years. This increase was in part because of the rise in food prices and because of Cuba’s increased food needs in the aftermath of several hurricanes and tropical storms that severely damaged the country’s agricultural sector.
U.S. exports to Cuba declined considerably from 2009 through 2011, rose again in 2012, and have fallen every year since then, amounting to just $180 million in 2015, the lowest level since 2002. The level of exports in 2015 dropped 40% from the previous year.
Illinois farmer, Wendell Shauman, ponders the wisdom of a policy that isolates Cuba from U.S. exports. His costs for everything from fertilizer to seed have increased, but the price for his crops have not.
During the last four years, Shauman’s income has dropped, and he was hoping that ending the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba would give his bottom line a little boost.
“Cuba’s a logical market,” he explained to Voice of America, a U.S. government news agency. “Something that’s 90 miles away should be your market. Politics has had that thing tied up, probably since I was in high school.”
Politics will keep it tied up, for now, as President Donald Trump seeks to limit trade with Cuba, reversing President Barack Obama’s efforts to ease restrictions with the Caribbean island nation.
“Walking away from a Cuba market is just nonsense too,” says Shauman. “It’s a market that is in our backdoor, you want to take advantage of that.”
Shauman voted for Trump in the 2016 Presidential election. But like many voters living in rural communities, Shauman voted for Trump despite his stance against current U.S. trade agreements. While Shauman still supports the President, and understands how trade agreements can hurt American factory workers by sending jobs overseas, he is at odds with some of the administration’s trade policies.
“Never walk away from a trade deal, never walk away from a market,” says Shauman. “The last increase in price is going to be the guy who will come from someplace else around the world and buy my product and pay the freight to get it to his market. And the more of that we do, the higher the price is going to be. So trade is hugely important.”
“I think the positions of the current administration on trade has been a little bit of a yo-yo for most farmers,” Tamara Nelsen, Senior Director of Commodities for the Illinois Farm Bureau. “Farmers don’t like to be told where they can sell food, so they have long been opponents to the embargo, or any embargo that includes food products. They believe the best way to change a government in a foreign country is to engage with them, not to take away their food.”
The Illinois Farm Bureau is one of a number of organizations critical of the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back trade with Cuba, but Nelsen admits it is a small market.
“It’s maybe 25, 30 million dollars a year, at best for a state like Illinois depending on what we are exporting in a given year.”
The Illinois Farm Bureau reports that income from U.S. corn and soy exports to Cuba reached an all-time high of $331 million in 2008, with Illinois representing about $66 million of that figure. However, by 2014 the U.S. total had dropped to $120 million, with Illinois receiving about $24 million of that total.
But Tamara Nelsen says trade with U.S. partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, involved much bigger numbers, and is a larger concern for farmers.
“Trade with Canada and Mexico for our agricultural exports have quadrupled since the signing of NAFTA.”
Which, says Nelsen, translates into about 35,000 jobs in Illinois. NAFTA partners are also the primary destination for Wendell Shauman’s crops.
“Mexico is our number one corn market now. You can’t walk away from that,” says Nelson.