Alex Winter-Nelson, Director of the ACES Office of International Programs, joined a delegation of Illinois agriculture sector leaders and congressional representatives on a visit to Cuba during mid-October. The Illinois-Cuba Working Group organized this “learning journey” as a step towards expanding agribusiness ties between Illinois and Cuba.
Participants travelling with Winter-Nelson included Congressman Rodney Davis (R) and Congresswoman Cheri Bustos (D), both of whom serve on the House Agriculture Committee. The Illinois Soybean Association sent a group that included both the President of the Board, Daryl Cates, and the CEO, Craig Rataczyk as well as other ISA officials. Other participants included Adam Nielsen of the Illinois Farm Bureau, Todd Maisch, President of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and Don Duvall from the Illinois Corn Marketing Board.
“In the context of more relaxed and normalized relations between the U.S. and Cuba, the visit exposed us to signs of economic change and persistence in that country,” Winter-Nelson said.
The trip included a tour of the new port facilities in the Mariel Special Development Zone, where Cuba is hoping to attract foreign private investments and visits to privately owned businesses, a new phenomenon in Cuba where government control has been the norm since the communist revolution of 1959. A visit to an agricultural cooperative gave the group an understanding of the production and marketing challenges faced by farmers in the country. Finally, a series of meetings with officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Foreign Trade and Investment gave the delegation a governmental perspective on those challenges.
“In all the activities we were warmly welcomed and impressed by the hospitality we received,” said Winter-Nelson.
Interest in Cuba by Americans has grown considerably since President Obama announced the start of a process to normalize relations between the countries in December of 2014. Formal diplomatic relations were restored in July of 2015 after being severed since 1961. The thawing of relations is opening of the possibility of greater economic and academic interactions between the countries. The Cuban economy has developed in patterns that reflect both the effects of the U.S. trade blockade and the communist ideology of the ruling government.
“The country has become self-reliant in many ways, but that self-reliance is achieved at very high costs. Looking forward it seems likely that Cuba will want to import from the U.S. goods that it now either does without, produces at high cost, or imports from other sources at higher cost than the U.S. would supply. That growth in imports could create opportunities for Illinois agriculture,” said Winter-Nelson.
He can easily see potential benefits of greater trade between Illinois and Cuba.
“They experience shortages in access to production technology including farm equipment, seeds and fertilizers and also shortages in access to ingredients for animal feeds and specific foods for human consumption. Imports from Illinois could make great contributions to increasing the productivity of Cuba’s agricultural sector. Despite that potential for more economic exchange, the persistence of Cuban the government’s control over market activities and the U.S. government’s restrictions on trade and finance continue to make doing business in Cuba difficult,” Winter-Nelson said.
Specifically, Winter-Nelson participated in the trip to better understand the importance of Cuba for economic interests in Illinois and to begin to explore the potential for academic exchanges.
“Greater openness may provide opportunities for academic exchange that can be mutually beneficial for scholars in Cuba and in Illinois. While greater economic exchange remains constrained by policies in both countries, the path for academic exchange is more open. The Office of International Programs will be exploring the potential for such exchanges in the near future,” he said.
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