By TIM ALEXANDER
CHICAGO, Ill. — Paul Johnson, executive director of the Illinois Cuba Working Group (ICWG), says Illinois and U.S. companies are attempting to do more business than ever in Communist-run Cuba, but keep running into obstacles.
“One, we still have an embargo in place. Two, Cuba has existing trade partners in place they have dealt with for a number of years. And three, there is a general weariness about what a relationship with Cuba would mean to the United States,” the longtime proponent of improved Cuban-American trade relations said.
Johnson made his comments just days before international news reports broke detailing Cuban leaders’ refute of U.S. efforts to retrieve a wayward, inert American Hellfire training missile currently in possession of the island nation, which the U.S. said was “misdirected” from Europe in 2014. To say the discovery comes at a bad time for those who have made decades-long efforts to improve trade relations between the two countries is an understatement. The news could serve to propel that public weariness, threatening any budding diplomatic detente between the two nations.
Missile issue aside, the ICWG is eager to build on a successful 2015 campaign in which many goals were met and exceeded. “We made historic efforts in 2015,” said Johnson, before defining the overall goals for ICWG for this year.
“President Obama’s announcement (urging a lifting of the half-century trade embargo, issued in 1960 under President Dwight D. Eisenhower and extended in 1962 under President John F. Kennedy) was historic, and it was a game changer. We’ve got a lot of momentum to build on, but we’ve got a lot more work to do.”
Long-term goals of the ICWG, as stated on its website, include striving to turn Cuba from an enemy to an ally “within our lifetime” by building trade relations that are mutually beneficial and enduring.
To accomplish that, the group’s 2016 goals include taking its message to more members of Congress, in part.
“We want to really identify concrete steps that we can use to show Congress that Cuba is sincerely interested in a long-term trade relationship,” Johnson said. “We are optimistic we can form a new, balanced relationship that’s beneficial to both countries.
“That it’s going to take Congress to end the embargo is correct. They have the power to move the ball forward. We can’t export our products and offer credit to Cuba until Congress changes the law.”
The ICWG is comprised of Illinois agricultural groups, small businesses, trade groups, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, individuals and politicians who share the focus of improving trade relations with Cuba. Illinois agricultural interests in membership include the Illinois Farm Bureau, Illinois Department of Agriculture, Cargill, ADM, the Grain and Feed Assoc. of Illinois and state soybean, corn, milk, beef, wheat and pork associations.
As the U.S. and Cuban economies grow, all ICWG members feel an increased exchange of ideas, knowledge, capital and credit with Cuba would be mutually beneficial and enduring.
“We calculate that about 10 percent of the U.S. soybeans Cuba would purchase would be grown in Illinois; that’s a pretty significant number. Cuba purchases a lot of soybeans annually and we’ve been losing market share to Brazil and Argentina. It’s a market we’re looking to get back,” said Johnson.
“Of 900 metric tons of corn that Cuba purchased globally last year, they didn’t purchase any from the U.S. We need to pick up that market. There are also opportunities for fertilizers and agricultural equipment.”
There should also be an opportunity to cash in on expanded Cuban trade for Peoria-based Caterpillar, Inc., the world’s largest earth-moving equipment company that is currently laying off thousands of employees worldwide due to slumping sales, said Johnson and “Big Yellow” officials, who have gone on record in favor of normalizing trade relations with Cuba.
“I think Caterpillar has a real good chance to make some inroads with Cuba in earth-moving equipment and construction,” Johnson said.
A fall 2015 legislative mission to Cuba comprised of ICWG and state agriculture officials, along with Illinois U.S. Reps. Cheri Bustos, a Democrat, and Rodney Davis, a Republican, yielded positive results that buoyed the hopes of the ICWG for a resolution to the longstanding trade deficit with Cuba.
“Congresswoman Bustos and Congressman Davis signed a bill to support agricultural trade with Cuba, and that was a big positive to come out of that trip,” Johnson said.
“I think they went to Cuba open-minded, asked some hard questions and were able to meet with some high-level government officials and talk candidly about concerns and ways forward. It was a positive, bipartisan effort, and I commend them for taking that step forward together.”
Several bills are before Congress that seek to end the Cuba embargo and expand trade relations with the nation, including House measures sponsored by Reps. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) and Tom Emmer (R-Minn.).
Whatever the vehicle, the member base of the ICWG hopes to tear down the barriers to normalized trade relations with Cuba that were breached, but not broken, by the Trade Sanctions and Reform Act of 2001 that permitted the limited sale of agricultural products by the United States to Cuba.
“We believe that improved economic relations is going to be a catalyst not only for exports, but improving the lives of Cubans, as well as providing a stable trade partner in the region,” noted Johnson, who resided in Cuba when then-Illinois Gov. George Ryan paid an historic 1999 visit to Havana to discuss trade relations.
“Cuba is not the largest market in the world; population-wise, it’s about the size of Illinois. But it is a market that is underdeveloped and underexplored.”