DENVER – It hasn’t been easy getting U.S. ag products into Cuba. That’s changing with recent announcements from the Obama Administration that the United States will reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, along with taking steps to ease both trade and travel restrictions.
For U.S. meat, the restrictions on financial transactions and other constraints that make Cuba a difficult export market aren’t quite so prevalent. In 2010, U.S. pork exports to Cuba peaked at $15.3 million dollars, and the following year beef exports reached just under one million dollars.
“We see a lot of potential for agricultural items,” says U.S. Meat Export Federation President and CEO Philip Seng. “It’s just going to take time to figure out where those niches are, and how we can build on that.”
Seng says there are still a few limiting factors to overcome before Cuba can become a reliable market for U.S. red meat. For one, export transactions currently must take place through a Cuban government entity.
“When we sell pork or beef or whatever the items would be to Cuba, there’s one buying organization, Alimport, which has been around for the last 30-40 years, and they’re the institution that buys all product coming through that one vector, if you will,” he explains. “So it’s not like going and selling product in other countries, in the Caribbean or elsewhere around the world. It’s all very state-controlled.”
In addition to barriers in Cuba itself, Seng says red tape stateside ties up checkoff dollars and funding from USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service’s Market Access Program (MAP).
“The state department has had restrictions on activities using checkoff dollars or using MAP dollars, government dollars, in Cuba or destined for Cuba,” he says. “So we’ve been really severely limited as far as having any engagement with Cuba. However, we do have traders that have traded meat from the U.S. and other countries that have a familiarity with the market there.”
According to USMEF, there has been no change in the policies that govern how checkoff dollars or MAP funds can be used in Cuba, which Seng is careful to point out it not a lost cause, despite the obstacles to doing business there.
“It does have promise,” says Seng. ” They do consume pork, they do consume beef, and so we see there’s an opportunity there, but we also have to bear in mind that for the last 40 ears, all the rest of the world has been trading with Cuba, except the United States, so a lot of our competitors definitely have a leg up on us.”
To hear more about the hurdles facing U.S. red meat in Cuba despite new trade relations, click the audio player above this story.