Kansas and Cuba

Valley Voice

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Like it or not, we are citizens of the world, our planet a shared breeding ground for promise or despair, isolation or inclusion. Two recent items tell us that Kansas and America would rather engage the globe than dismiss it.

First came a report last month that Kansas had sold a record $5.3 billion in global farm exports last year.

On the heels of that news, the U.S. State Department announced plans to start restoring relations with Cuba. Visits that reunify Cuban families in the U.S will resume. More airline flights to Cuba are coming, and the caps on monthly remittance money sent to Cuba will be removed. U.S. companies will again be allowed to invest in Cuban businesses.

The change begins a reversal of Trump-era sanctions that wrecked the revival of Cuban-American diplomacy during the Obama administration.

Both developments – Kansas’ ag exports and renewing U.S.-Cuban ties –come at a time when Cubans face striking food and medicine shortages, and as new waves of Cubans head for U.S. shores. Full diplomacy and open trade are not (yet) part of this renewal but the notions remain strong.
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Seven years ago, Sen. Jerry Moran applauded the Obama Administration’s easing of U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Restoring trade with Cuba makes sense, Moran had said. Lifting the embargo would create additional markets for Kansas producers of food, fiber, merchandise, industrial products including aircraft, and technology, among others.
We seemed on the way, if a long one, to partnership with Cuba.

Moran, a farm state realist, said at the time, “Cuba imports 80 percent of its food and is a natural market for U.S. agriculture, especially the hard red winter wheat grown in Kansas.”
In 2015 we had scrapped a half-century of petulant diplomacy and self-defeating behavior that marked America’s attitude toward Cuba. America’s blacklist of Cuba allowed others to play and trade there – most notably, the Europeans.

“Wheat is Cuba’s largest food commodity import,” Moran had said. “If (not) for the embargo, the United States could supply the Cuban demand for wheat. In our absence, other countries are more willing to enter this market. And just last year (2014), Cuba purchased $150 million of wheat from the European Union.”

Restoring American travel to Cuba was thought to promote freedom and liberty by example, letting Cubans witness the expression of free thought and experience free market principles. “A growing Cuban economy would increase the standard of living for Cuban citizens,” Moran had said. “It would also empower them to make greater demands on their own government to increase individual and political rights.”

Our embassy reopened. Among the first free travelers were visual and performing artists; studios, ateliers. Concert and lecture halls were being refurbished. Supplies and equipment began to trickle in. U.S. businesses began to anticipate Cuban need in manufacturing, industry, communications, consumer goods, food and fiber, among other things.

But by mid-2016 the presidential election campaigns had gathered steam. Most Republicans demanded that we reverse course on Cuba and reinstate the old embargoes. Donald Trump insisted we re-float the wall around Cuba. Down went the welcome banners and up went the sanctions.

Cuba languished, its long ties with Russia withering and its partnership with Venezuela dissolving with that country’s battered economy and the tyranny of dictator Nicholas Maduro.

Kansas farm exports were increasing by $100 million to $200 million yearly, a lot of them to neighbors Mexico and Canada, but none to Cuba.

The Biden administration believes change with Cuba begins with direct engagement with its people, not its government. This was the underlying premise in Obama’s opening to Havana. (Sending technology, goods and services to Cubans may help them avoid government censorship and allow thousands of people to rejoin family members in the United States.)
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Today we have the tricky matter of Havana syndrome, which has afflicted diplomats and foreign service personnel around the world. The mysterious ailment first hit members of the U.S. delegation years ago in Cuba. The CIA says it likely was not caused by foreign adversaries – Cuba, Russia or others. Nonetheless, it clouds the way to reopening full diplomatic relations.

It needn’t block trade with a neglected neighbor. Last year, Kansas agriculture sold to 187 foreign markets. Mexico bought $1.9 billion in farm exports from Kansas. Canada bought $134.4 million. Cuba, left out, turned to Europe with its heavy stocks of wheat from Ukraine.

Kansas’ role in global trade and diplomacy increases with its mission as a producer of food and fiber. Foreign trade goes hand-in-hand with international relations, the kind of diplomacy that helps people rather than shut them out.

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