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A deal brokered with Cuban President Fidel Castro by the NAACP will pave the way for African American farmers to export goods to the communist state.
In the deal, the Cuban government would purchase some $15 million—$25 million of soybeans, corn, rice, and chicken in 2003 from NBFA Foods, the Heathsville, Virginia-based company that handles trade for the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA). NBFA Foods would then distribute the money to the several hundred black farmers participating in the deal. The first shipment of corn and soybeans is due in March.
NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, who had met with Castro when he was a U.S. congressman, set up the meeting and orchestrated the deal after the 4.5-hour session. In a follow-up meeting, Cuban cabinet and agricultural ministry members joined Castro and the deal was inked.
The deal is one of the few bright spots for beleaguered black farmers, who continue to dwindle in number as younger generations flee the industry while those who remain constantly struggle to operate profitably. The U.S. has 12,000 full-time and 7,000 part-time black farmers who collectively own 2 million acres of land. Discrimination persists despite a 1999 settlement in which African American farmers claimed racism within the industry made it impossible to compete.
“Black farmers are struggling due primarily to discrimination in both the lending [practices of the USDA] and marketplace,” says Edward J. Pennick, director of the East Point, Georgia-based Land Assistance Fund Federation of Southern Cooperatives, an organization of black farmers and rural people. “The USDA, which is supposed to be the lender of last resort, still discriminates against blacks in both lending and access to technical assistance, as was proven by the black farmers’ lawsuit against the USDA. The domestic marketplace is still basically a good-old-boy network that favors large and corporate farms,” says Pennick.
John Boyd, president of NBFA, says the Cuba contract will have a major impact on African American farming. “It gives us the opportunity to offer a fair price to black farmers. Historically, we have taken our products to the market, and they’d get docked,” he says. Corporate buyers, for example, claimed the grain included onions and other impurities and would pay $3.00 a bushel for soybeans when the going rate was $4.75. “That could really hurt me when it’s time to subtract everything, get to the bottom line, and pay out my operating costs,” says Boyd.
Only 90 miles south of Miami, Cuba is a Caribbean island of 11 million people. While trade prohibitions against communist China were lifted in the 1970s, the United States continues its 42-year embargo forbidding ordinary commerce with Cuba. Restrictions on Cuba have loosened, but business transactions are limited to cash deals. Cuba imports about $1 billion in agricultural products each year.
Exports to Cuba may serve as a roundabout way for black farmers to win more contracts inside the United States. NBFA Foods will be responsible for gathering the grain and chicken from the black farmers and delivering them to stateside ports owned by agribusiness giants like