Archive for Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Post-Fidel Cuba: Time to wait and see

February 19, 2008

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Cuban President Fidel Castro's decision today to resign after nearly a half-century in power may be grabbing international attention, but at the Overbrook grain elevator it's registering little more than a yawn.

At least for now.

"I don't see their name in any big way on any sales export list," said Matthew Vajnar, grain merchandiser for the Ottawa Co-op Assn., working today in Overbrook.

Talk around the co-op, which has three elevators in Lawrence, occasionally comes around to Cuba, a market that conceivably could buy more of everything from the United States.

"I'm sure that's the hope," Vajnar said.

But that's the future.

Vajnar receives export reports each week, showing where grain shipments are headed. For corn, it's typically to Asia, including Taiwan and Korea; soybeans increasingly are sold to China; and wheat goes to several major international markets.

Cuba, despite years of Congressional efforts and other political power plays, may be buying crops but still remains far from registering a major blip on grain sellers' radar screens.

Issues in Cuba - whether they're related to political problems or purchasing proposals - are yet to have a "macro" effect on grain markets, Vajnar said.

"If Cuba's on there," Vajnar said, "it's not a big deal."

Agriculture officials remain hopeful that a shift away from Castro's leadership could signal a more open market for Kansas crops.

The U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council said that in 2006, Cuba spent $125.7 million to import three major crops from the U.S.: $51.4 million for wheat, $42.6 million for corn and $31.7 million for soybeans.

All three are major crops in Kansas. Corn and soybeans are the two major crops in Douglas County.

Grain exports to Cuba have come despite a trade embargo with the communist nation. The trade barrier has been in place for nearly 50 years.

A U.S. law approved in 2000, however, enables Cuba to buy certain food and agricultural products, on a cash basis. U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and U.S. Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., have pushed to ease processes for allowing Kansas products to be sold to Cuba.

Last year, Moran introduced a bill in Congress to allow Cuba to send payments directly to U.S. banks, rather than having them routed through other countries. That bill has been introduced for several years, and just last year passed the House but not in the Senate.

A representative in Moran's office said that it was unclear what effect Castro's resignation might have on the proposed legislation, should Moran decide to introduce it once again.

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