Academic journal article Cuban Studies

The Special Relationship and the Challenge of Export Diversification: Cuban Exports of Fruits and Vegetables to the United States, 1900 to 1962

Academic journal article Cuban Studies

The Special Relationship and the Challenge of Export Diversification: Cuban Exports of Fruits and Vegetables to the United States, 1900 to 1962

Article excerpt

The architects of Cuba's special relationship to the United States envisioned that, through trade preferences and foreign investment, Cuba might become the "garden spot" of its northern neighbor.1 For example, the special commissioner for the United States to Cuba and Puerto Rico, Robert P. Porter, considered the fruit industry in Cuba in 1899 to be in its infancy, and that its future development would "be of the vastest proportions." Somewhat optimistically, he predicted, "Cuba will control the future fruit supply of this country," and more accurately, that American capital would participate in this process.2 Shortly after he stepped down as military governor of Cuba in 1902, Leonard Wood and colleagues, in Opportunities in the Colonies and Cuba, reflected that it would be detrimental for Cuba to specialize in only one export crop, for all the vulnerabilities that such created. "Cuba should and could export, not sugar alone, but coffee, tea, livestock, and, because of existing favorable conditions, especially fruit and what is commonly known in the North as 'garden truck' [fresh vegetables]."3

Nonetheless, at the time of the Cuban Revolution of 1959, sugar made up around three-quarters of the value of Cuban exports to the United States, not that much different from the early decades of the century. Given that for almost sixty years Cuban exports to the United States enjoyed an advantage not available to any other sovereign country—at least a 20 percent discount on import duties on products subject to a US tariff—I explore in this article why Cuba was not able to achieve greater diversification in its exports to the US market.

I argue that, on the one hand, the dominant role of sugar in Cuba's exports conceals the diversification that did take place in the country's agricultural exports. On the other, while trade preferences gave Cuba a privileged position against foreign competitors, in periods of high US protectionism Cuba was at a disadvantage compared to US producers of similar crops. Oscillating US trade policy combined with expanding US production of fruits and vegetables, broader economic conditions (two world wars and the Great Depression), and Cuban domestic policies, among other factors, largely explain why Cuba was not able to diversify its exports to a greater extent.

The 1903 Reciprocity Convention, which granted Cuba a 20 percent reduction in US import duties, provided the incentive for the development of a number of nontraditional fruit and vegetable exports geared to the US market. In less than two decades, Cuba became practically the sole foreign supplier of pineapples and grapefruit. Moreover, the 1934 Reciprocal Trade Agreement granted Cuba even more favorable duty concessions during the US winter season, and it became the dominant foreign supplier of vegetables such as cucumbers, okra, and eggplant, and an important source of fresh tomatoes. Further, in the post–World War II period, in most years the value of Cuban exports of processed fruit to the United States exceeded that of fresh fruit. Yet, over these sixty years, Cuban exports of fresh and processed fruits and vegetables to the United States rarely reached 4 percent of total Cuban exports, reflecting the dominant role of sugar.

Historians of Cuba have amply debated the conditions that favored Cuba's specialization in sugar export production as well as its consequences for the Cuban economy and society.4 Given its ensured US market, in most periods sugar production was simply more profitable than any other activity, leading to the concentration of land, capital, and labor in this crop.5 While at various moments, analysts and policy makers argued in favor of the need to diversify the country's agricultural sector by placing greater attention on domestic food production as well as more diversified export products and markets, the comparative advantage that Cuba held in the production of cane sugar was never really questioned. …

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