For decades, Arkansas farmers, as well as others across America, have been denied the right to trade with Cuba. And for too long, American travelers have been denied travel to Cuba--the only country in the world we are still restricted from visiting.
Our Cuba policy is not only out of date, but based more on caricature than reality. The failure of our policy with Cuba is not only that it has not accomplished its goals, but that it has also created significant collateral damages, among them the very freedoms of our American citizens.
And while many support normalized trade and 81 percent of all Americans now support travel to Cuba, the damage of this failed policy is reaching directly into Arkansas' economy.
Many who are part of our state's agriculture community have long supported normalized trade with Cuba, and for good reason. Cuba imports about 80 percent of its food at an annual price tag of nearly $2 billion. Among others, imports include rice, soybeans, corn and poultry--all relevant Arkansas products.
Today, Cuba imports 600,000 metric tons of rice per year. Arkansas is the largest rice-producing state in the U.S. and contributes over $4 billion to the state's economy. Prior to the embargo--over five decades ago, when my grandfather first started growing rice on our family farm--Cuba was one of the largest markets for Arkansas-produced rice. Unfortunately, this market has long since been lost to Vietnam, Brazil and others--countries who offer credit while businesses in the U.S., by congressional decree, cannot.
Arkansas stands to reap significant gains not only in rice, but also in other agricultural commodities and sectors of the state economy if the current impediments are removed.
In a 2015 letter to Congress, Gov. Asa Hutchinson put the potential value of this market to Arkansans at nearly $40 million. And a University of Arkansas study places the value of the market to our state at more than $50 million and nearly 500 jobs.
But in order for Arkansans to capitalize on Cuban trade, U.S. policy must change. And although significant progress has been made recently to unburden American citizens of archaic and ineffective policies toward Cuba, some remain in U.S. law and require congressional action.
A partial fix is available through the current appropriations bill. Two amendments--the Crawford and Sanford amendments--take steps to return a couple of freedoms to American citizens, and voting on these may take place this week.
Both Rep. Rick Crawford and Sen. John Boozman have shown exceptional leadership by drafting and supporting legislation that pragmatically addresses the Cuba issue in a way that will be beneficial to Arkansas citizens.
Others in the Arkansas congressional delegation have recently shown some openness toward Cuban trade, but it is important to have strong and unified leadership on an issue that is so critical to our state.
Though the benefits to our state economy are clear, at its core, trade and travel with Cuba is not only about the economic impact it could have on our state, but about returning rights to everyday Americans.
Our nation has long championed the cause of freedom and expressed the need for the Cuban government to remove its weight of oppression from the rightful freedoms of its citizens. For that, I totally agree. However, the irony of our Cuban policy is that we seek to create new freedoms in Cuba through a policy that denies freedoms to us here at home. To continue to deny American businesses the right to trade and Americans the right to travel is not foreign policy, but domestic oppression.
Those who care about our freedoms and our state's economy should contact their Washington representatives and ask them to support Cuba trade and travel.
If we are to continue to argue the merits of the Cuban government extending to its citizens the freedoms that should rightfully be theirs, we should set the example by returning to our citizens the right to trade and the right to travel that is rightfully ours.
Mark Isbell is a fourth-generation Arkansas farmer, co-owner of Isbell Farms in Lonoke, and a resident of North Little Rock.
Editorial on 07/07/2016
Print Headline: Restore rights