MONTGOMERY – Agriculture officials and industry leaders in Alabama for years have lobbied for expanded exports to socialist Cuba, a country where they see a promising market for the state’s poultry products.
Now they’re waiting to see what President Donald Trump’s recent, more restrictive policy change with Cuba will mean for the millions of tons of poultry that leave Mobile for the island nation every month.
Alabama Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan last week said exports to Cuba could be impacted by that country’s response to the president’s directive.
“Particularly, with Raul Castro stepping down in early ’18,” McMillan said. “We’re going to be anxious to see what the Cuban government’s policy is going to be.
“If something undesirable happens there, that would be on the Cuba side,” he said. “We hope that doesn’t happen.”
Earlier this month, Trump said the U.S. would impose new limits on U.S. travelers to the island, and ban any payments to the military-linked conglomerate that controls much of the island's tourism industry, the Associated Press reported.
Trump also declared "the harboring of criminals and fugitives will end. You have no choice. It will end."
He said the U.S. would consider lifting those and other restrictions only after Cuba returned fugitives and made a series of other internal changes, including freeing political prisoners, allowing freedom of assembly, and holding free elections.
Cuba's foreign minister later rejected the policy change, saying, "We will never negotiate under pressure or under threat." He also said Cuba refuses to return U.S. fugitives who have received asylum in Cuba.
About 7 million tons of poultry are shipped from the Port of Mobile each month to Cuba. But Cuba has other options for importing agriculture products, McMillan said, including Mexico, South America and Canada.
“They have choices. Some of those choices may be more expensive, that may be our advantage,” said McMillan, who has taken multiple trips to Cuba and advocated for expanded agriculture exports.
There are human rights violations in China, but no one is cutting off trade there, McMillan said.
“The bottom line, I think, is that the best way to format change down there is to continue trade with them,” he said.
Armando de Quesada of Hartselle disagrees. He was 10 when he fled Cuba in 1962. On this issue, he agrees with Trump.
“Any dollars that go to Cuba automatically go to the Castro regime,” Quesada said. “It’s not like here. Over there, the government owns everything. There’s no benefit to the Cuban people.”
Growth of private industry is limited, and Quesada doesn’t think opening relations between the two countries will effect change.
“I don’t think enriching them helps the cause of freedom,” he said. “It doesn’t help the people.”
Ag shipments to Cuba weren’t part of former President Barack Obama’s policy with the socialist country. In 2000, Congress began allowing a limited amount of agriculture exports to Cuba.
“We’ve been trading with them for some time,” said Johnny Adams, executive director of the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association. While Obama made it easier, it’s still cumbersome, he said.
“We’re not allowed to give them credit. They have to pay us up front through a third party,” Adams said. “Normalizing trade would make it a lot easier.”
Like McMillan, Adams has been to Cuba multiple times.
“We have the highest quality, most reasonably priced poultry in the world and we’re 90 miles away,” Adams said.
“Hopefully, everyone can sit down and work things out between the two countries,” Adams said. “We’ve enjoyed our relationship with the Cuban people, and would like to see it get better.”