Pennsylvania state senator wants U.S. to open up to Cuba for trade

On March 21, 2016, Cuban President Raul Castro (left) hosts U.S. President Barack Obama at a welcoming ceremony at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana, Cuba. Obama’s visit to Cuba was the first by a U.S. president since 1928. Some in Harrisburg are looking for more commerce between the two nations. – Associated Press

He said that it should be a good market for U.S. farmers.



The Engage Cuba Coalition, an advocacy group working to open trade and travel between the U.S. and Cuba, says the longtime embargo on Cuba is hurting Pennsylvania farmers and businesses.

The Washington-based coalition launched its 18th state council during a media presentation last Monday in the Capitol in Harrisburg.

“We are facing a crisis with American agriculture,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba. “While trade is a contentious issue, one thing is clear: There is bipartisan support for opening up new areas of trade for American products, and this is what Cuba represents for the commonwealth and the agriculture industry as a whole.”

It is the same for manufacturing businesses, he added.

Pennsylvania has a sweet connection with Cuba. Both have towns named Hershey.

“Milton Hershey started Hershey, Cuba, to build a chocolate empire and this is where he sourced much of his sugar,” Williams said.

Hershey, Cuba, is about an hour east of Cuba’s capital, Havana.

There is also cultural exchange between Cuba, Penn State and other state universities.

The U.S. started sanctions against Cuba in 1960 in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution.

“During the Cold War, Cuba was tied to the Soviet Union,” said Robert Portada, associate professor of political science at Kutztown University. “In 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a move to make restrictions more stringent.”

The embargo was codified into law so it would take an act of Congress to change it. However, the president has limited power to change some things such as broadening agricultural sales.

“Cuba does not produce enough food on the island,” Portada said.

Cuba does buy food from the U.S but because of restrictions it must pay cash.

“The Cuban government does not have a lot of cash and they don’t have credit,” Portada said. “That is what American farmers want.”

At the end of President Barack Obama’s second term the U.S. was moving toward this, but it is moving back toward an adversarial relationship under President Donald Trump, Portada said.

Trump has reimposed restrictions on trade.

“If we lift the embargo, experts say $6 billion in additional exports and services would be gained as a result,” Williams said. “But it is also the right, moral thing to do. It is the right thing for the Cuban people. We’ve been doing this for almost 60 years, and it has not worked.”

State Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, an Allegheny County Republican, said the U.S. is nearly alone on the world stage regarding Cuba, and noted that Cuba imports nearly 80 percent of its food, chiefly dairy, poultry and soybeans.

“Why should Cuba import dairy from halfway around the world when Pennsylvania is ready to export it now?” Reschenthaler said. It doesn’t make sense.”

For its part, the U.S. Department of State cites agriculture as an area of openness with Cuba.

“Although economic sanctions remain in place,” the department’s website says, “the United States is one of Cuba’s primary suppliers of food and agricultural products, with exports of those goods valued at $247 million in 2016.”

But, according to a Senate resolution Reschenthaler co-sponsored, U.S. exports to Cuba are hampered by the need to get permission from the U.S. Department of Commerce and numerous federal export regulations.

The resolution urges Congress to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba and eliminate trade barriers.

Cuba has requested over $6 billion in foreign investments to revitalize its domestic manufacturing sector.

“Right now, American manufacturers can’t even bid on these projects,” Reschenthaler said.

Miguel Fraga, first secretary at the Cuban embassy in Washington, the island-nation’s second-highest ranking diplomat to the United States, speaks in the Capital News Center in the state Capital in Harrisburg. He advocates opening trade and travel between the U.S. and Cuba. – Associated Press

Miguel Fraga, first secretary at the Cuban embassy in Washington, the island-nation’s second-highest ranking diplomat to the United States, said the Cuban people want better relations with the U.S.

“We have to start today. We have been waiting for almost 60 years,” Fraga said. “Americans can go where ever you want, but not to Cuba. You need a license to go to Cuba. Why?

“We buy $2 billion of food every year. We buy things in Canada, we buy things in Asia and Europe. Why not here, in the United States? That can help your farmers. That can help our people. That is the reason we are here. We believe we have more in common with the United States.

“We believe relations with goodwill and respect is the path we want to follow.”

“I hope one day we can trade rum for chocolate. That would be a good thing.”

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