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Agriculture and Food

Cuba Faces an Unprecedented Food Crisis

Cuba is facing an unprecedented food crisis. Critics blame Cuba’s agricultural policies, but UN agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) have identified US sanctions as a cause or exacerbating factor in Cuba’s food security challenges.

In March, protests broke out relating to food scarcity and inflation, as well as blackouts. Critics often blame Cuba’s centralized planning and agricultural policies, yet according to the WFP, “over the past 60 years, the comprehensive social protection programs of Cuba have largely eradicated hunger and poverty.” The WFP, the FAO, the IFAD, ECLAC, Oxfam, UN Special Rapporteurs, the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC), the Congressional Research Service (CRS), and U.S. experts and officials, and others, have identified U.S. policy as the direct cause of Cuba’s food security difficulties.

Food Imports

Although Cuba is of similar size in terms of economy and population to its neighbors, it imports significantly less from the United States. U.S. policy directly affects Cuba’s ability to import, requires payment in advance, increases shipping costs, limits earnings, scares away investors, and negatively affects the work of NGOs and multilateral organizations.

†World Bank 2020 *IMF May 2023 World Economic Outlook.
h/t Guillaume Long, former Foreign Minister of Ecuador

“There’s a significant impediment to trade in Cuba because of [U.S.] legislation that requires payment in advance in cash in U.S. dollars, which makes it very difficult for a lot of AG trade to take place.” 3/24

The United States International Trade Commission“ concluded that if U.S. restrictions on trade with Cuba had been lifted in 2015, exports of … agricultural commodities … could have increased within five years to about $800 million annually from a 2010-2013 average of $300 million.” A Texas A&M study cited in a 2015 Senate Agriculture Committee hearing estimated the figure could increase fourfold to $1.2 billion if trade and travel restrictions were lifted. – CRS, 5/21

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The Cost of U.S. Sanctions:

“[The] full potential of trade between both countries is far from being realized. We export about 15% of what Cuba purchases from agricultural suppliers around the world. That figure could easily be closer to 60% if U.S. agriculture were able to compete by offering credit on export sales and expanding USDA programs that we traditionally use to enter markets around the world but cannot use in Cuba..” 8/23

“The current food crisis is the result of the greater economic crisis…. [and] of a multitude of compounding factors and events including a tightening of the embargo under the Trump administration, which involved adding Cuba to the State Sponsors of Terrorism List and further restricting remittances, travel, and trade…” 10/23

“The embargo affects the import of food products for human consumption, in particular those destined to meet social programmes, as restrictions limit their quantity and quality, thus having a direct effect on the food security of the vulnerable segments of the population.”—UN FAO, 3/23

“Cuba imports 80 percent of its food… which represents an expense of nearly US$2 billion.”—Oxfam, Right to Live Without a Blockade, 2021

“The procurement and shipment of food and non-food commodities, including fortified food provided by WFP, are also delayed owing to the difficulty in finding a shipping company willing to enter Cuban ports.”—World Food Program, 2/23

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Not waiving Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, “under which third-country companies trading with Cuba can be sued in United States courts, has had a negative impact on Cuban trade by drastically reducing the commercial partners that operate in the country.”—UN FAO, 3/23

The state sponsor of terror designation “led several banks to suspend their operations in the country, including transfers for the payment of purchases of food, medicines, spare parts and goods for the population.”—Economic Commission of Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), 3/23

“The United States imposes measures against shipping companies from third countries ferrying cargo from other countries to Cuba, impeding the flow of oil, foodstuffs and other commerce critical to the daily needs of Cuban citizens and residents, especially the most vulnerable groups living in rural areas.”—IFAD, 5/20

Food Production

Food production is hampered by U.S. sanctions, increasing costs for inputs such as machinery and fuel, making financing difficult, and preventing Cuba from accessing the latest agriculture technology, among other issues.

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“The tightening measures of the embargo adopted by the current United States Government have deepened the negative impacts on agricultural production in Cuba.” – UN FAO, 4/20

“Only 9 of 518 requests by the agricultural sector of Cuba in the international market for tractors, engines, batteries, forklifts and spare parts for agricultural machinery were approved in 2022 owing to the ‘fear to be punished’ [by U.S. sanctions].”—UN Report: Secondary sanctions, overcompliance and human rights. 9/23

“The high costs of inputs needed for agricultural, fisheries and livestock production … that, in many cases, are produced only by United States firms, reduce profitability and lower the ability of Cuba to satisfy local food requirements.”—UN FAO, 3/23

“[The embargo creates a] difficulty for Cuba to access external multilateral financing for development programs in agriculture and rural development in general, and the related unavailability of resources for rehabilitating and modernizing agricultural equipment and infrastructure.”—UN FAO, 4/20

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“Even the implementation of food programs by United Nations agencies is reported to be hampered by rising costs for imports, cancellations of maritime transport contracts and delays in deliveries of goods, or rejections and delays of banking transactions to and from suppliers.”—UN Report: Secondary sanctions, overcompliance and human rights, 9/23

“Restrictions on access to financial resources and technologies have made it even more difficult to build farm-related infrastructure and increase productivity.”—UN FAO, 4/20

“Restrictive US policies have led to insufficient domestic food production (in terms of quantity, variety, quality, and safety), higher prices for imports to cover food needs, and inadequate technology to improve productivity.”—Oxfam, Right to Live Without a Blockade 2021

“The high costs of importing agricultural equipment and inputs are a limiting factor for agricultural productivity in Cuba, affecting the country’s ability to cover its food requirements. This represents a significant budgetary burden for the country, threatens those most dependent on social safety nets and poses challenges to food security in Cuba.”—World Food Program, 2/23

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In the agricultural and rural sectors, the following limitations are observed:

  • Obsolete agricultural equipment (for example, tractors, irrigation systems and water pumps) and lack of spare parts.
  • High cost and lack of inputs required for agricultural and livestock production, processing and distribution (for example, fuel, animal feeds, seeds, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and veterinary pharmaceuticals).
  • Insufficient access to hard-currency financing for the import of equipment and inputs.
  • Limited access to providers of new agricultural technology.
  • Limited export opportunities for some agricultural products.

The limitations contribute to low productivity levels, limiting the quantity, quality and competitiveness of domestic food production and making high levels of food imports necessary to cover the needs of the rural population.”—International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) 5/20

Cuba’s Agriculture Exports

The embargo prevents Cuba from selling products in the U.S., substantially reducing revenue earnings and increasing shipping and other costs in reaching other markets. It also makes it more difficult and less profitable for Cuba to sell its agriculture products to other countries, including in Europe, due to increased shipping, insurance and logistical costs. The No Stolen Trademarks Act, which has passed the House, would prevent Cuba from ever exporting Havana Club rum, a major Cuban product, to the U.S. as the brand would not be protected or recognized by U.S. law even though U.S. patent courts have previously upheld its trademark.

“The impossibility of taking full advantage of the export potential (i.e. of coffee, honey, tobacco, live lobsters and aquaculture products) to the nearest market, the United States, has implied major losses, since it has been necessary to sell to markets located farther away, with the resultant higher marketing and distribution costs, negatively affecting the foreign-exchange earnings of Cuba and its capacity to purchase basic products, especially food.”—UN FAO, 3/23

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“Banks reject financial transactions by Cuban enterprises in United States dollars and in other currencies, which hinders payment for certifications of Cuban products with a high potential to be commercialized in Europe.”—UN FAO, 3/23

This article was first published on the ACERE website. The Alliance for Cuba Engagement and Respect (ACERE) is a coalition of entities and individuals advocating against indiscriminate sanctions as the remedy for the prolonged conflict and ideological disparities between the U.S. and Cuba. Its membership takes part in advocacy initiatives aimed at reshaping U.S. policy toward Cuba. Members advocate prioritizing engagement and respecting Cuba’s sovereignty over archaic restrictions and confrontational discourse. The organization offers a more constructive path toward fostering positive bilateral relations.

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