Rice exports to Cuba would benefit Louisiana farmers
Resuming rice exports to Cuba would provide a huge boost to Louisiana rice farmers, according to the chairman of the Louisiana Rice Promotion Board.
Kevin Berken, a rice farmer from Lake Arthur, made his comments at a seminar on Jan. 16 hosted by the Lafayette International Center.
Before the embargo started in 1960, Cuba was the biggest buyer of American rice, Berken said.
He said some rice was sold to Cuba starting in the year 2000. In 2004, Cuba bought $64 million in American rice, Berken said, but those sales ended in 2009 because of restrictions imposed by the U.S. government. The U.S. policy required payment for agricultural products up front, he said, but other countries such as Vietnam extend credit.
But the USA Rice Federation announced in a press release issued on Jan. 16 that U.S. trade officials have revised the payment rules to make rice sales easier. In addition, the new rules will allow U.S. financial institutions to open accounts at Cuban banks to facilitate transactions.
"Up until now, U.S. government restrictions have limited the ability of the U.S. industry to compete in Cuba," said USA Rice President & CEO Betsy Ward in the press release. "Foreign competitors have stepped in since they can provide credit and face none of the barriers to trade that we have had imposed on us."
Ward said USA Rice has been advocating for open trade and travel with Cuba since the mid-1990's, and rice was the first U.S. commodity back in Cuba in 1999.
"Our commitment to the market and the Cuban people is genuine. We understand these are the first steps in the process, but we're ready to engage with Congress both independently and through the U.S. Agriculture for Cuba Coalition (USACC) to advocate for complete normalization of trade with Cuba,” she said in the press release.
Berken said Cubans grow roughly 400,000 tons of rice a year, and they import another 600,000 tons. “They could just about take all of Louisiana’s crop,” he said.
Now, Vietnam supplies most of the rice imported into Cuba, and it’s inferior in quality, which could result from the 45-day voyage required for Vietnamese ships to reach Cuba. He said American shipments could arrive in two days from Louisiana.
Before full trade resumes with Cuba, Berken said, the confiscation of $7 billion in U.S. assets and property that led to the embargo must be addressed.
Berken said he and other members of the USA Rice Federation visit leaders on Capitol Hill every February to discuss policy that affects rice. “Cuba is always one of those things we talk about,” he said.
Gary LaGrange, director of the Port of New Orleans, said 25,000 pounds of poultry were shipped to Cuba from New Orleans last year.
He said a Congressional delegation will be visiting Cuba soon to meet with government officials to discuss how steps can be taken to normalize relations.
LaGrange said resuming trade would be a huge boost to the Louisiana economy. “The lion’s share of the business will emanate from the Port of New Orleans and Louisiana,” he said.
LaGrange said New Orleans has been submitted as the potential location for the new Cuban consulate.
Larry Sides, of Sides and Associates, advertising and public relations firm, has visited Cuba 24 times since 2000. He said Cuban rice after harvest is dried on concrete and the grains have to be separated from gravel and other unwanted particles.
Sides said of all his worldwide travels, he cherishes his trips to Cuba most. “My experiences there are the greatest in my life.”