Planting Seeds Against the Cuban Embargo

Long before President Obama restored ties, American farmers were fighting sanctions—and may ultimately provide the muscle he (or his successor) needs to push a final deal through.

Farmers in Artemisa, Cuba, who met with a trade delegation from U.S. farm states in March.

Photographer: Ramon Espinosa/AP Photo

In the first quarter of 2015, the number of organizations lobbying the federal government about the Cuban embargo doubled from the previous three months. Senate records show that in the wake of President Obama announcing the normalization of diplomatic relations with Havana, dozens of organizations—ranging from Marriott International to Royal Caribbean Cruises to Major League Baseball—rushed to send representatives to talk to members of Congress about repealing sanctions enacted against Fidel Castro’s communist regime by President Kennedy in 1962.

They were late to the party. Farmers have actively lobbied against the embargo since before 2000, when Congress passed legislation allowing humanitarian exports of agriculture and medicine. U.S. farming accounted for nearly half of all entities lobbying on Cuba from 2003-05. When hostility from the George W. Bush administration dried up exports, farmers continued their quest to end the embargo.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates Cuba could be worth $1.1 billion to American farmers. “We have a natural advantage with our proximity, and we have excellent products,” says Justin Flaten, a wheat, pinto bean, and pea farmer and president of JM Grain in Great Falls, Mont., who started selling to Cuba 10 years ago. “It’s a great market for us. We should be in it.”

Flaten first sold pinto beans and peas to Cuba after his first business visit, in 2005. It wasn’t easy. Financing had to be done through a French bank, and shipping problems sometimes had his crops sitting for days in Port Everglades, Fla., waiting for payments to come through. The frustrations soured his taste for Cuba trade, he says. He last sold his lentils to Alimport, Cuba’s state-owned agricultural purchaser, in 2010.

In June, Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who sponsored what became the 2000 legislation that let farmers sell to Cuba, introduced a bill with Maine Independent Angus King to lift the embargo. The legislation would preserve a ban on government funds being used to promote trade. “The embargo hasn’t worked because it’s unilateral,” says Moran. “Cuba can still buy from our competitors.”

Not all farmers favor a quick rollback of sanctions. Janell Hendren, national affairs coordinator for the Gainesville-based Florida Farm Bureau Federation, says normalized trade would mean imports as well as exports. Farming in Cuba is highly subsidized, creating potentially unfair trade, she says. “We could be at a huge competitive disadvantage” on citrus fruit and vegetable crops. “We’re not anxious to have these problems.”

Florida’s farm interests are up against major U.S. players. Deere, soybean processor Bunge North America, and several state farm bureaus are all in favor of opening Cuba trade, according to lobbying records. Cargill, the world’s biggest agribusiness, is bankrolling the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, a consortium of commodity growers, farm lenders, and exporters.

Farmers may provide the muscle Obama, or his successor, needs to push a final deal through. “When I saw him say it’s time for a new approach, I thought, that’s exactly what I thought when I went to Cuba,” says Flaten. “There are droves of young people there who just want an opportunity. If you want to end the communist regime, you help give it to them.”