Washington laments loss of Cuba agriculture trade market

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HAVANA — The aisle of a Havana grocery store is lined with shelf after shelf of cheddar-flavored Pringles. At the deli counter, there are dozens of boxes of frozen fish sticks. Down another aisle, a brand of baby wipes fills the shelves.

The produce section, meanwhile, is almost bare. A few bags of frozen fruits and vegetables sit in a glass case.

These limited choices underscore Cuba's struggle -- it's a country unable to feed itself but whose political history makes leaders reluctant to work with the United States.

About a third of Cuba's land is dedicated to agriculture, most of it to grow sugar. Cuban farmers also grow tobacco, citrus, coffee, rice, beans and potatoes. But it's not enough to feed 11.2 million people.

For years, Washington farmers have helped.

Cuba imports about 80 percent of its food. In spite of an embargo against the communist country, Cubans depend increasingly on imports from the United States. For years, the U.S. was the main provider of food to Cuba. While the U.S. hasn't boasted that title since 2010, a representative from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana said American agricultural exports to Cuba have increased by about 15 percent per year during the last three years.

But that growth left out Washington, which once counted Cuba among its top five export markets for peas. The state hasn't sent fruits or vegetables there since 2007, after a crackdown on the 51-year-old embargo that occurred in 2004 helped dry up Washington exports.

Former U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., were among those who pushed to reopen trade routes between Cuba and the U.S. in the late 1990s. That resulted in an exception applied to the embargo in 2001 allowing the United States to ship food and medicine to Cuba in exchange for cash paid upfront.

After that trade deal, Washington exports of peas, lentils, cherries and apples steadily increased.

"I think it was good for Americans, good for farmers, good for Cubans, and I thought it was good policy," Nethercutt said.

Now, it's too expensive for Washington farmers to ship produce to Cuba due to added costs , said Robert Hamilton, Gov. Jay Inslee's trade policy advise.

"It's not worth it," Hamilton said.

Nethercutt maintains that reopening trade with Cuba would benefit Washington farmers.

"The best thing any member of Congress or the Senate can do is assist the people you represent," Nethercutt said. "If it's been restricted, it's a function of . members of our state delegation to fight like crazy for the Obama administration to take action to encourage sales."

And even though Cuba's market is small, with a population of about 11 million people, Hamilton said the agriculture sector isn't going to refuse that market. "Every little bit helps," he said.

Only a few blocks from the Havana grocery store stands a small fruit stand, bustling with Cubans doing their shopping. There are no apples or peas here; this is all locally grown fruit that thrives in the Caribbean.

All the produce sold here goes through the government, the owner said. Business has been steady in the three years she's run the shop. But, "My business would be better if more of the product came from other countries," she said.