The first time the Trump administration chose to further restrict travel and trade with Cuba in 2017 — reversing a thaw in the relationship between the two countries initiated by the administration of President Barack Obama — Tina Smith was on her way to Mayabeque, a province just outside of Havana. Then the lieutenant governor of Minnesota, Smith led the first U.S. delegation to Cuba after the policy change to visit with Cuban agricultural officials, as well as tour co-ops and shopping markets.
“I spent most of my time talking to local officials and just people,” Smith said in an interview. “People are so much more interested in making connections, and finding common ground, and sharing experiences than sometimes their governments are.”
The tour, which included lawmakers from both parties, was a rebuke to the president’s policy change; Minnesota lawmakers on both sides of the aisle were upset. They had spent years advocating for opening up agricultural relations with Cuba, pushed legislation, and then they were sidelined.
Now, exactly two years after Smith’s trip, the Trump administration is moving again to further restrict when and how Americans interact with Cuba, this time preventing cruise ship travel and making travel as a whole more difficult.
“So now, I think about how we’re pulling back from some of these basic ‘person to person’ meetings and business,” Smith said. “All is it does is postpone again the opportunity of pulling Cuba into what could be a very positive economic orbit for the United States.”
Under Obama, the first U.S. president to visit Cuba since 1928, opening up Cuba to more tourism and trade seemed like an inevitability. But Minnesota lawmakers and other advocates for a more open relationship with the island say the Trump administration’s approach moves Cuba policy backwards, not forwards, and away from the possibility of opening up trade.
“The structure of U.S. policy during the last three years of the Obama administration and its dealings with the Castro administration was built of cardboard,” John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, told NPR.
“And the Trump administration today threw water on that cardboard.”
A new market
While the U.S. does have a general embargo on exporting products to Cuba, the one exemption is particularly relevant to Minnesota: food and agriculture. In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Trade Sanction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, which made agricultural exports to Cuba exempt from the embargo.
“Cuba is in some ways a perfect trading partner for Minnesota because there’s so little overlap between what they are good at and they produce and what Minnesota is good at and what we produce,” Smith said. “So it’s a natural trading relationship, especially because they’re so close.”
Farmers in Minnesota say they need new markets, especially amid a trade war with China that has heavily impacted the soybean industry. At the same time, Cuba, which imports the majority of its food, is struggling to deal with U.S. sanctions during an economic crisis.
Jeff Phillips, who works on new markets at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said that just because there is an exemption, it doesn’t make exporting easy.
Phillips said that last year Cuba imported about $2 billion worth of food and agricultural products and just about 10 percent of that came from the U.S. — primarily poultry, as well as corn and soybean products.
But there’s still a problem, he said: Under the current terms with the Cuban government, Cuba cannot make purchases with credit.
“There’s usually credit terms with the buyer,” Phillips said. “With this, there’s no credit allowed on purchases of these products from the U.S., so if I’m trying to sell a million dollars worth of soybean, I need to have that paid for by the Cubans in advance. And that’s just the major sticking point.”
Phillips said the barrier to credit needs to be resolved in order to move forward. “Any assistance we can get through the Congress,” he said, “would help us a lot on furthering our goals.”
‘A step backward’
Rep. Tom Emmer, who leads the National Republican Campaign Committee and is in charge of ensuring Republicans take back the House, is usually a reliable ally of the president. But as a co-chair of the House Cuba Working Group, the Sixth District Republican and his colleagues were clear about their thoughts on the Trump administration’s new Cuba policy:
“Every American should have the right to travel freely. The Administration’s decision to further restrict U.S. travel to Cuba not only infringes upon that right, it undercuts efforts to help promote democracy and improve the lives of the Cuban people,” their statement reads. “The United States’ failed embargo policy towards Cuba over the last 60 years has resulted in the outcome we see today.”
Neither Rep. Pete Stauber, MN-8, nor Rep. Jim Hagedorn, MN-1, two Republican freshman and key supporters of the president’s trade policy in the state, responded to requests for comment. But Democrats in the delegation have been just as clear as Emmer.
“A lot of people still don’t even really fully appreciate that the United States still has an embargo on Cuba that has existed for decades,” Smith said, noting that she believes the new Trump administration guidelines are a step backward. “And it has a distinct impact on the Cuban people, and a distinct impact on American businesses and farmers would want to export to Cuba.”
Rep. Angie Craig, MN-2, told MinnPost the decision is “another step backward on making progress with U.S. and Cuba relations.” Her colleague, Rep. Dean Phillips, MN-3, echoed that sentiment: “The Trump administration’s approach returns us to the same failed strategy that hurts Minnesota businesses — and particularly our farmers, who are already facing too many economic challenges.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, too, has been at the forefront of pushing for better economic integration with Cuba. Every year since 2015, Klobuchar has introduced the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act, which would strip the president’s ability to maintain the embargo and restrict trade relations with Cuba.
“Fifty-five years of isolating Cuba has not advanced our interests and has disadvantaged American businesses and farmers,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “We need to be expanding engagement with Cuba and building on the progress we’ve made, not returning to the policies of the past.”
Smith wasn’t there, but she said that Obama’s 2016 visit to Cuba looked as though it would be a turning point for U.S.-Cuba relations. “People came from all over the place to watch him as his car drove through the streets of Havana. And that just struck me as such an opportunity for building and extending a relationship. And it was all thrown out the window with what the Trump administration did,” she said.
“We all tried to express that that’s not how most Americans feel. That most Americans aren’t in that boat of wanting to push Cuba away.”