USA Rice Federation President and CEO Betsy Ward addressed an audience of Cuban officials and business interests during a panel discussion hosted by the Cuban Interests Section today. The event was broadcast via video conference to Cuban government officials in Havana.
Ward underscored how opening agricultural trade between the U.S. and Cuba would benefit both countries. "Under normal commercial relations we believe that Cuba could become, overnight, the largest market for U.S. grown rice in the world," Ward said. "The lifting of sanctions will generate jobs in rural America and it would enable Cuba to buy high quality rice from a nearby supplier, reducing shipping time, storage and transportation costs."
Prior to the 1962 embargo, Cuba was the top export destination for U.S.-grown rice. In 2000, Congress passed legislation that permitted U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba and rice sales to the island nation totaled 635,000 MT between 2002 and 2006. However, this legislation codified restrictions on other commercial activities and maintained existing U.S. restrictions on imports from Cuba. A rule tightening in 2005 crippled U.S. exports to Cuba and there have been no U.S. rice sales since 2008. Cubans consume nearly 1 million metric tons of rice annually, which is among the highest consumption rates in the Americas. Sixty percent of the rice consumed in Cuba is imported from other countries.
Ward highlighted the commitment of USA Rice to opening the market in Cuba, including being the first U.S. entity to exhibit at a Havana Trade Fair in 2001. She reiterated the rice industry's long-standing position to normalize trade and travel between the two countries. Ward predicted a very limited modification of U.S.-Cuba trade policy over the next year given the reluctance of some members of Congress and the administration to take bold action in an election year.