Miami Herald
Opinion – by Bob Stallman (www.fb.org)
May 27, 2009

www.miamiherald.com

It amazes me that it is 2009, and Americans still are unable to visit or do business with Cuba. It is the only country in the world where our government bans Americans from traveling. Unfortunately, a lot of opportunities are being missed for both business and tourism because of these costly restrictions.

I was lucky enough to visit Cuba in 2002. I say lucky because both the country and its people are beautiful. It also helped me see firsthand the disarray left on Cuba’s agriculture industry when the Russian troops left in the early 1990s and how Cubans are dealing with the aftermath.

My trip shored up several things for me: First, Cuban citizens are good people and, second, they need affordable food.

It was striking to see tourists there from everywhere in the world except the United States. To remedy this, there is legislation on Capitol Hill that would open Cuba to travel for U.S. citizens. Further, President Obama recently relaxed rules to allow Cuban Americans to visit their families, while easing financial and gift restrictions.

These actions bring us one step closer to increasing food and agricultural sales to Cuba, an important priority for the American Farm Bureau Federation. U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba have been on average $400 million annually since 2000.

With the embargo lifted, we expect that number would rise to $1 billion annually.

While touring the Cuban countryside I realized the nation’s ability to produce bulk commodities had significantly diminished after the Russians’ departure. Other countries are taking advantage of the opportunity.

For example, I visited a joint-venture project between an Israeli investor and the Cuban government to grow oranges. This is just one agriculture example, and there are plenty more. Being able to feed its citizens is a big priority for Cuba. It is a poor country, but its people are by no means malnourished. Every Cuban is given rations for basic foods, such as milk and rice. When I was there, a campaign was in place encouraging average citizens in cities to plant plots of vegetables in order to help produce food.

There are many practical reasons that the United States and Cuba should be trading. The Cuban government allocates a specific sum of money to buy food and pay transportation costs for those imports. Transportation costs would be minimal between the United States and Cuba compared to Europe or Asia, which means more money could go toward feeding Cuba’s citizens instead of being burned up in shipping costs. By removing U.S. restrictions on Cuba, we also weaken the totalitarian grip on that nation’s citizens. History has shown we can do more to spread democracy by opening travel and trade to other countries.

By working as ambassadors of change in those countries we can have a more-positive affect on Cubans’ lives than anything we have done under this embargo for the past 47 years.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

After almost a half century, the time is now to open Cuba’s border to U.S. citizens, businesses and ideals.

Bob Stallman is president of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

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