OLYMPIA — The governors of Washington, Idaho and California are among a bipartisan group of state chief executives asking Congress to end trade sanctions against Cuba to “maintain the tremendous momentum of U.S. agricultural exports.”
“Expanding trade with Cuba will further strengthen our nation’s agriculture sector by opening a market of 11 million people just 90 miles from our shores,” according to a letter signed by nine governors dated Oct. 9 and sent to U.S. House and Senate leaders.
The Obama administration has moved to increase trade, financial and diplomatic dealings with Cuba, but only Congress can fully lift the embargo imposed after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Congress has allowed U.S. food and medicine into Cuba since 2000, but Cuban customers can’t buy U.S. agricultural products on credit, preventing them from negotiating favorable payment plans.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture report in June cited the cash-only requirement as a major reason for slumping U.S. food sales to Cuba.
U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba peaked at $685 million in 2008, but declined to $268 million in 2014, according to the USDA. The European Union and Brazil have surpassed the U.S. as food suppliers to Cuba, which imports about $1.8 billion worth of food annually.
“Financing restrictions imposed by the embargo limit the ability of U.S. companies to competitively serve the Cuban market,” according to the governors.
Besides the financing restrictions, Cuba may be turning to other countries to diversify its food supply and to strengthen ties with allies such as China and Vietnam, according to the USDA report.
The letter was signed by seven Democrats, including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and California Gov. Jerry Brown. Other Democrats to sign were Mark Drayton of Minnesota, Steve Bullock of Montana, Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania, Peter Shumlin of Vermont and Terry McAuliffe of Virgina.
Republican Govs. Butch Otter of Idaho and Robert Bentley of Alabama signed the letter.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, has not announced a position on lifting the embargo, a spokeswoman said.
Washington state does not export any agricultural products to Cuba, said Joe Bippert, Washington State Department of Agriculture international marketing manager.
He said he would expect the state’s producers to be interested in exploring the Cuban market, but shipping costs via the Panama Canal would be higher than exporting to the Pacific Rim.
“I think people want to explore it and see what the potential is,” he said. “From a Washington perspective, the largest concern is getting the product there.”
The U.S. exports mostly chicken, corn, soybean meal and soybeans to Cuba. Before the revolution, the U.S. was Cuba’s top supplier of rice, according to the USDA. Today, little U.S. rice enters Cuba, which instead imports the commodity from Brazil.
The USA Rice Federation projects Arkansas, Louisiana and other Southern states as potential large rice exporters to Cuba. California Rice Commission spokesman Jim Morris said Cuba doesn’t represent a potential new market for Golden State growers. Southern states are closer and grow the long-grain rice preferred by Cubans, rather than the medium- and short-grained varieties cultivated in California, he said.
Republican presidential candidates with Cuban heritage, Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, have argued lifting trade sanctions will throw a lifeline to a dictatorship.
The nine governors argued that a positive change in relations “will put us in a better position to boost democratic ideals in Cuba.”
“This goal has not been achieved with an outdated strategy of isolation and sanctions,” the governors stated.
The governors addressed the letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
The letter was initiated by McAuliffe, the Virginia governor, and circulated to governors thought to have similar positions based on past statements and policies, according to an Inslee spokeswoman.