WASHINGTON – As U.S. agriculture interests export more food to Cuba,residents are still forced to feed themselves on paltry rations while tourists eat the high-quality imports.
Detractors of the system,including some business owners and members of Congress,say lifting trade sanctions would be a humanitarian act because it might improve Cubans' lives.
Exporting food to Cuba cannot be a humanitarian act,said Antonio Jorge,economics and international relations professor at Florida International University. The Cuban government maintains the tourism industry,he said,with little regard for supplying Cubans with quality food.
Food exports to Cuba have risen from $4.3 million in 2001 to $391 million last year,generating nearly a billion dollars for the agriculture sector of the U.S. economy.
But that rising trade has not increased the supply of food available to Cubans,said John Kavulich,president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council,a business group that tallies Cuba's economy by embedding researchers there.
According to the group's most recent findings,released in a Feb. 28 report,“Economic Eye on Cuba,” 10 percent of the imports,by dollar value,are used for hotels and tourism locations and in government-operated U.S. dollar stores,where Cubans can't afford to shop. The other 90 percent is put into Cuba's food distribution system,which includes the ration program,school lunches,work places,hospitals and the military,Kavulich said.
But the tourism food is of much higher quality,said Carmelo Mesa,retired professor of economics and international relations at the University of Pittsburgh.
Cubans get rations allowing them to buy 2 pounds of a ground meat and soy mixture per person per month,Mesa said.
“There is no filet mignon written on the ration cards,” Jorge said. “Of course not,because the money wouldn't be going to the government.” He said it is clear “most of the choice food stock is sold in restaurants just by the fact that it is not available on the ration card.”
The average Cuban earns about $10 per month and cannot afford to buy food that is not on the ration card. A quart of milk would cost about $3.75,Mesa said.
But Chris Aberle,who sells commodities in Cuba for FCStone,offered a different view. He said he has sold 407,000 tons of wheat,soy products and corn worth $80 million and believes it has significantly contributed to improving the situation. On one visit,he said,“The bellman in the hotel told me how he appreciated what we are doing.”
In mid-February,a formal Cuban government decree discouraged tourist-to-native interactions. The Cuban tourism minister ordered hotel workers,who make up less than 1 percent of a population of 11 million,to refrain from mingling with foreigners,the Associated Press reported from Havana,in keeping with the segregation policies of the closed-information society.
Tourism areas are dramatically different from the non-tourism areas,said Loren Reuters,who works for the Indiana-based Rose Acre Farms. He traveled there two weeks ago to meet officials of Alimport,Cuba's state-run trade company.
“There was a lack of infrastructure. There were very few stores,except in the areas that were frequented by tourists,” he said. “You see abandoned buildings,and you see what at once must have been mansions occupied by many different families.”
This obvious deterioration points to the Cuban government's failure,according to the economists. Before 1959,the year of Fidel Castro's rise to power,Cuba was much less dependent on imports and was much more productive.
To remain afloat,since the late 1980s the government has set economic and political policies that have impoverished its people,Mesa said.
“The regime has found ways to compensate for losses of tourism revenue since the U.S. travel ban went into effect last year,at the expense of Cubans,” Mesa said.
The Cuban finance minister decreed a 10 percent price increase in 2004,without a proportional increase in the government-allotted salaries,Mesa said. The government also made the Cuban peso the primary currency and charges 10 cents for every dollar converted to the peso. It accepts the U.S. dollar only with a 10 percent surcharge at government-operated stores,hotels and restaurants,Kavulich said.
“Fidel is a very shrewd guy,” Mesa said. Apart from using supplies to gain tourism revenue,he also made a one-way trade good for two-way politics,making advocacy agreements part of the business relationships,Mesa said.
Since 2003,Alimport,has required U.S. members of Congress,agricultural organizations and businesses from South Carolina,California,Montana,Kansas,Vermont,Iowa,Indiana and Florida to sign advocacy agreements,according to the U.S.-Cuba trade council's report.
They promised to seek a change in U. S. policy toward Cuba. Texas-based Sysco is the only signatory to retreat from the agreement,determining that “such documents are an unnecessary politicalization and corruption of the commercial process,” the report said.
Aberle began trading before the agreements were required and has not been asked to sign one. Neither has Reuters,who is covered by the agreement that the Indiana Farm Bureau signed with Alimport. But he has not yet completed his first sale because,he said, another U.S. company is selling cheaper eggs,possibly of a lesser quality.
Although Sen. Larry Craig,R-Idaho,voted in 1996 to strengthen the trade embargo against Cuba,he found the policy obsolete by 2004 when he traveled there on a trade mission.
Craig and Alimport signed a joint communiqué in which Alimport expressed “a willingness to negotiate and sign contracts” for $10 million in purchases from Idaho,stipulating that the senator and Rep. C.L. “Butch” Otter,R-Idaho,“further agree to work with the Idaho congressional delegation to open up trade and travel with Cuba.”
When he introduced the Export Facilitation Act of 2005 on Feb. 9,Craig said,“Introducing Cuba to the American free market and capitalism is the only way to bring about reform.”
Craig and other members of Congress say the Treasury Department,which oversees exports to Cuba,has not eased sanctions,but has enforced more strictly the trade regulations of the 2000 Act that opened trade.
Sensing an ideological leak into Congress from these anti-embargo voices,Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,R-Fla.,introduced a bill Feb. 17 to counter Craig's bill. She seeks to hold accountable any members of Congress who advocates a change in U.S. law on behalf of a foreign person or foreign entity.
Rep. Robert Menendez,D-N.J.,reintroduced an anti-communist bill the same week,seeking 100 percent taxation on amounts received from U.S. export transactions to Cuba if there are explicit agreements drawn up for lobbying in exchange.