By TIM ALEXANDER
CHICAGO, Ill. — Though the Trump administration had vowed to zero out funding for the Foreign Market Development (FMD) effort and Market Access Program (MAP) in the federal budget, an amendment by outgoing Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) passed as part of the final 2018 farm bill permits the use of FMD-MAP funds for Cuba.
Paul Johnson, chair of the Illinois-Cuba Working Group (ICWG) and the U.S. Ag Coalition for Cuba (USACC), is celebrating the inclusion of the amendment, which he said represents the first legislation passed regarding trade with Cuba in the past 17 years and provides an opportunity to increase the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture.
“This is a step in the right direction towards normalizing trade with Cuba,” he said. “It underscores the common sense of trade policy that allows our farmers and ranchers to level the playing field in global markets and permits the private sector to compete in Cuba.”
FMD provides cost-share assistance to nonprofit commodity and agricultural trade associations to support overseas market development. MAP helps pay for overseas marketing and promotional programs. President Trump had recommended both programs be defunded as part of his fiscal year 2018 budget, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Trump had vowed to quash inroads made by the Obama administration into ending the more than six-decade Cuban trade embargo, citing national security.
Farmers such as Joe Steinkamp and Doug Keesling side with the USACC and Johnson in hoping that a normalization of trade relations between the United States and Cuba will occur in the near future.
“Opening doors with Cuba to set the stage for market expansion prospects seems like a win-win for both the U.S. and the Cuban people,” said Steinkamp, who, as director of the American Soybean Assoc. and an Evansville, Ind.-area farmer, accompanied Johnson and a delegation of farmer-leaders on a trip to Cuba last November to assess new market opportunities for producers.
“As a Kansas farmer, I know the importance of opening up new markets and how that impacts the lives of farmers,” said Keesling, who grows wheat, grain sorghum and corn in central Kansas. “We need a new approach with Cuba that is dynamic and thoughtful. Six decades of embargo have done nothing to advance the interests of our U.S. foreign policy, our farmers and ranchers or the Cuban people.”
The amendment to the farm bill originated by Heitkamp was modified by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to “make it more representative of a presidential memorandum which stipulated that MAP or FMD funding could not be used for foreign market development and promotional activities tied in with the Cuban military,” according to Johnson.
The amended amendment then passed both the House and Senate with a recommendation that the USDA strongly support and enforce the programs, which allow funding for agriculture groups to visit foreign nations in order to better compete in worldwide markets. There will likely be additional oversight attached to the funding, Johnson explained.
“There are a couple of companies that are tied to the military in Cuba,” he said, “and U.S. companies cannot do business with them using FMD-MAP funds. But truthfully, the military and Cuban agriculture are separate entities.”
The amendment was significant in many ways, according to Johnson, who has been visiting Cuba and working to expand U.S.-Cuba trade for more than two decades. Unlike past FMD programs, the Heitkamp amendment allows U.S. agriculture groups to enter into cooperative studies with Cuban colleagues for the benefit of both nations.
“Symbolically it is important, because it is the first legislation passed regarding Cuba in 17 years. But it also shows that there is real movement on this path of (expanding) agricultural trade between both countries. We hope this is a momentum-builder towards tackling larger issues,” Johnson said.
“Further, FMD funding can now be used for education, promotion and research. This allows groups to travel to Cuba and give symposiums and join in joint studies and research with Cuban agriculture groups.”
Full market access to Cuba through normalized trade relations – meaning an end to the 1960s Cuban trade embargo – is the ultimate goal of the USACC and ICWG, Johnson added.