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Three Agricultural Pillars to Yield a New U.S. Relation With Cuba | Commentary

By Arturo Lopez-Levy and Paul Johnson Just a few days after the historic visit of Secretary of State John Kerry to Cuba to raise the flag and open the new U.S. embassy, expectations are growing about what will happen next. Within the executive branch, the debate is less about adjusting the embargo but more focused on the right way to replace it. In that sense, the opening of the embassies should be thought of as prelude to new ideas for intensifying the rapprochement with Cuba.  

In the new hour of U.S.-Cuba relations, it is important not to succumb to false expectations. This is a complex relationship with deep differences in values and interests between the two countries. The good news is that Cuba and the United States share economic, political and security objectives. Good management of these objectives would generate tactical trust and provide understanding for larger strategic cooperation.  

One of the key points where the two governments have a clear opportunity to advance trust and understanding is food security. Beginning in 2000, agriculture pioneered the first commercial opening to Cuba since the embargo was put into place four decades before. Since then the U.S. was eventually able to sell $5 billion in farm products to the island.  

Because Cuba imports between 70 percent to 80 percent of the food it consumes, it is highly vulnerable to a potential run-up in world food prices. Food deficits can create uncertainties that slow down the processes of economic reform, political liberalization and intergenerational transition in which Cuba is immersed. Just by buying and selling agricultural products in the United States, Cuba could save millions in transportation costs alone.  

In contrast, cooperation and food trade between Cuba and the U.S. represents a win-win for both countries. Economic reforms in Cuba have prioritized market-oriented changes in the agricultural sector. The goal of building a sustainable agriculture in Cuba aligns American interests and values with those of the Cuban reformers.  

Support for private farmers and cooperatives and the handing over of land in usufruct represent important institutional progress in human rights. U.S-Cuba food security cooperation will improve the right to nutrition, development, education and private property. Rather than promoting regime change by confrontation, American support for a market oriented Cuban agriculture would encourage other economic sectors to emulate its successful path.  

With Cuba, there are additional steps President Barack Obama and Congress should take -- based on these three pillars -- to create a more comprehensive and mutually beneficial agricultural relationship between our countries:  

1) Increase trade, investment and cooperation between the business sectors of both countries. Cuba will buy more from the U.S. if it is permitted to export more of its products here and when U.S. agriculture suppliers are permitted to compete against Cuba’s current business partners that have the ability to offer credit. Cuba should open significant space to its private sector for the purchase of agricultural equipment in the U.S. easing the inherited rigidities of its state monopoly of foreign trade.  

2) Intensify the relationship between the ministries of agriculture of the two governments. Given the health sensitivity of food and agriculture, the geographical proximity, and the need for phytosanitary protection, the two governments have to cooperate on issues relating to food security. Bilateral exchanges should be reinforced by joint programs of multilateral institutions such as the World Food Programme and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Cuba should overcome its Cold War aversion to the OAS system and join the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture.  

3) Promote agriculture educational cooperation. Cuba and the United States should integrate efforts in agricultural, livestock and biotechnology education. The U.S. can provide scholarships for Cuban agronomists, engineers, veterinarians, and managers of agriculture-related businesses to study in American universities. The Department of Agriculture should support U.S. participation in bilateral and multilateral projects to support Cuban development, reform and openness.  

Finally the importance of the agricultural community on the 2016 American electoral map cannot be understated. Although several Midwest farm states helped elect President Obama, their governors, and state and federal legislators continue to be predominantly Republican. There are also close social links between agricultural groups and conservative bases throughout the U.S., ties that are no longer limited to Florida domestic politics. This reality is important as agricultural states provide a powerful base of support for improving future U.S./Cuba relations.  

Arturo Lopez-Levy is an adjunct professor at the Center for Global Affairs of New York University. Paul Johnson is the co-founder of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba.  

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