Looking for common ground in farming: Vilsack, Cuban counterpart visit Iowa, look to ‘solid relationship

POLK CITY — Two farm policymakers — U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Cuban Agriculture Minister Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero — spent Friday touring the highlights of Iowa agriculture and searching for interests their nations might have in common.

Vilsack and Rollero made four stops that showcased Iowa’s agricultural diversity — DuPont Pioneer’s operations in Johnston, an organic farm near Polk City, Iowa State University’s campus in Ames and a renewable fuels plant near Nevada.

“International relations are critically important to American agriculture,” Vilsack told reporters during a briefing he and Rollero held at the Lehman organic farm, noting that 30 percent of everything grown in America is sold outside the country.

“There is a tremendous opportunity for us to have a solid relationship between our two countries, beginning with agriculture,” he said.

Rollero, through a translator, agreed that the two nations have “a great deal to learn from each other.”

He said he hoped a memorandum of understanding now in place will usher in cooperation in areas such as education, technology, research, genetics, science, water resources and climate change, leading to a “deeper and fluid” relationship.

Vilsack, a former Iowa mayor, state senator and governor, drew parallels between Friday’s event and a 1959 Iowa visit by former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. And he quoted former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln as saying “the best way to eliminate an enemy is to make a friend.”

Vilsack said President Obama is convinced that nearly 60 years of strained relations with Cuba’s communist regime has produced “little success” and the time has come for a “different approach.” The president has visited the island nation, eased some financial and travel restrictions and reopened the U.S. embassy in Havana.

Vilsack, who also has visited Cuba as part of his previous two meetings with Rollero, said he is “optimistic and hopeful” that Congress will lift the U.S. embargo.

“Hopefully, those who want to trade and invest in Cuba will see the benefit of eliminating barriers” such as advance payments and other restrictions that hamper commerce, he added.

“We are currently hampered by federal legislation that makes it more difficult for us to have that solid relationship,” he said during the news conference. “I sincerely hope that at some point in time in the near future Congress sees the wisdom of ending the embargo that allows us to have an even closer relationship.”

Vilsack’s comments were echoed Friday by members of a newly launched Engage Cuba Iowa State Council made up of agriculture, business, manufacturing, education, energy, health care, government and religious leaders.

James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, said the council hopes to build statewide support for congressional action to end the travel ban and trade embargo on Cuba “that is costing Iowa jobs and preventing economic development for the Cuban people.”

Council member Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, said Cuba needs to import 80 percent of its food, which presents a new market for a state ranked No. 1 in corn, soybean, hogs, and egg production.

“We all win by having this discussion,” he said.

Rod Boshart, The Gazette

June 3, 2016

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