Many agribusiness leaders in Alabama hope to increase exports to the Communist Caribbean nation of Cuba during the next few years. They argue increased trade would contribute positively to the state’s economy. Recent actions by the Trump Administration to emphasize the importance of human rights as a keystone for expanded ties with the United States hold the potential to impact agricultural exports to Cuba.
Additionally, the expansion of other economic sectors within Alabama may ultimately dwarf the impact of developing new agribusiness markets. Increasingly, residents of “The Heart of Dixie” owe their prosperity, not to farming, but instead to the growth of manufacturing industries. While agricultural exports do bring revenue into the state, economic planners during recent years have sought to encourage the growth of well-paid technology-based jobs.
Envisioning a Lucrative Trade
The easing of legal restrictions on trade between the USA and Cuba during the Obama Administration generated considerable enthusiasm among agricultural producers in Alabama for the development of a potentially profitable new market for exports. Cuba, a populous nation, currently imports up to 80% of all food sold on the island. Located within close proximity to the United States, Cuba since the opening of trade in 2000 became an important destination market for U.S. frozen chicken. It currently ranks as the fifth largest importer of U.S. frozen chicken in the world, in fact.
Cuba’s National Port Authority signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Port of Mobile in early 2017. It acknowledged Alabama currently exports poultry and forest products to Cuba. Mobile has already become the fifth most important exporting city in the growing volume of trade between the United States and Cuba, reportedly processing some 47,024 tons of exports to Cuba during 2016 alone. Cuban officials hope the recently established Mariel Economic Special Development Zone in Cuba will eventually become a key trading hub in the Caribbean region. Alabama seems well positioned to benefit from the projected expansion of regional trade.
Human Rights Issues
Nevertheless, while many members of Alabama’s agribusiness community hope for increased exports to Cuba in the near future, policy tensions between the Trump Administration and the Cuban government have generated concern among some business leaders in Alabama that Cuba might purchase chicken from other export sources instead, such as Brazil. President Trump recently urged the Cuban government to free political prisoners and conduct free and fair elections. He also wants Cuba to return fugitives and convicted criminals from the U.S. who have sought to hide in the Communist nation. The Trump Administration recently issued new directives prohibiting payments to companies controlled by the Cuban military and he threatened to re-impose some travel restrictions on U.S. citizens visiting Cuba.
Alabama’s Agricultural Commissioner noted any cessation of exports of agricultural products from the United States to Cuba would result from Cuba’s response to the President’s statement. He expressed the hope the Cuban government would not choose to limit trade with U.S. trading partners. Cuba’s President Raul Castro will retire in 2018, providing a possible opportunity for Cuba to liberalize its oppressive human rights policies in accordance with President’s Trump’s suggestions in the near future.
Alabama’s Agribusiness Economy
Would changes in the extent of agribusiness exports to Cuba impact Alabama’s economy? Possibly. Agriculture has played an historically critical role in the state of slightly over 4,708,708 people. During recent years, agribusiness concerns have often outpaced family-owned and operated small farms in The Heart of Dixie:
- Currently, total Alabama farmland comprises 9,000,000 acres;
- The average farm encompasses 186 acres (a figure averaging in both numerous small farms and large agribusiness concerns);
- Some 376,000 acres of Alabama farmland on 925 farms grow cotton.
Recently, agricultural production patterns in Alabama began changing markedly. Livestock production now greatly exceeds crop harvests as a source of agribusiness revenue in the state, with poultry and quail both figuring prominently in sales figures. Additionally, the majority of farmers grow corn (2,112 farms) and/or soybeans (1,502 farms).
Economic Development in Alabama
Some evidence suggests an expansion of agribusiness exports to Cuba might exert less impact on Alabama’s economy than a rise more broadly based exports. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports agriculture still plays an important employment role in Alabama. In May, 2016, it ranked Alabama as one of the leading five states in terms of total employment in agriculture. Workers in this sector in Alabama earn an hourly mean wage of $13.14. These jobs, while numerous, remain comparatively low paying relative to agricultural employment in many other states.
During recent years economic planners in Alabama have sought to develop new, well-paid positions in high tech and manufacturing sectors with some success. The state received a 2016 Silver Shovel Award for promoting the growth of the automotive and aerospace manufacturing sectors:
- The large aircraft manufacturer Boeing recently opened new facilities in Alabama and created some 470 new jobs, for example.
- Efforts to stimulate economic development in the state reportedly generated almost 90,000 new employment positions;
- These efforts have resulted in over $24.5 billion in investment capital flowing into Alabama since 2012 alone.
Assessing The Impact of Cuban Exports
Whether current agribusiness exports to Cuba will significantly bolster Alabama’s economy in the future remains unclear at this time. Poultry producers and forest product growers have obtained a developing new market from this trade during the past 16 years, generating millions of dollars in sales. Plus, the increasing exports to Cuba also promoted shipping traffic through the Port of Mobile as a commercial center, contributing indirectly to Alabama’s economy.
Possibly expanding trade with Cuba to encompass other agricultural exports (including cotton, soybeans and corn produced by smaller agricultural concerns) might benefit many additional Alabama farmers. The export to Cuba of automotive and aeronautics products manufactured in the state could also potentially promote further economic expansion within the state.