The news that Nand Persaud and Co is about to ship some 15,000 tonnes of rice to Cuba is a welcome development for our beleaguered rice farmers, who are mostly eking out a living by cultivating plots less than 10 acres in size. As with all exports, valuable foreign exchange will be earned to permit us to import other necessities that we cannot, or do not, produce. The loss of the Venezuelan market for 200,000+ tonnes of rice and paddy annually was a serious blow, both to our rice industry and the nation for a number of reasons.
There was firstly the size of that market – absorbing fully one-third of our exports. Secondly, there was the price of US0/tonne that was almost double that of the world market price. Third were the terms of payment which were tied to the PetroCaribe initiative, via which we were receiving oil at extremely concessionary terms. The arrangement became fundamentally a barter arrangement that meant we did not have to pay for oil in foreign currency (US dollars) but to our own farmers in Guyana dollars, which we print but are not convertible on the forex market.
There are some who believe the then new APNU/AFC Government did not open negotiations with the Maduro Government in Venezuela to save the rice market because of the tough rhetoric from the latter consequent to ExxonMobil’s announcement of a massive oil find off our Essequibo Coast, claimed by Venezuela and a toughening of the rhetoric from the US Government opposed to the socialist adventurism of Venezuela. These observers claim, however, that the Venezuelan reaction was pro-forma and in any case, with all its talk of sanctions against Venezuela, the US was the largest supplier of rice to Venezuela and its market share increased with the exit of Guyana. Last year, the US shipped more than 300,000 tonnes of rice to Venezuela.
But the new market for Guyanese rice in Cuba, coupled with US displeasure with a western hemispheric country’s flirtation with socialism and its nationalisation imperative, evoked echoes of the conditions existing here in the early 1960s. Then, the US had failed in its mission to remove the socialist Castro after the latter steered Cuba’s foreign policy in a pro-Moscow direction during the Cold War that was heating up. Then British Guiana, under the leadership of Cheddi Jagan, was poised to receive independence from Britain, but had opened up a market for rice in Cuba. This was one of the factors that had helped solidify the US’s contention that Jagan and the PPP were “fellow travellers” with Moscow.
To point out that the rice contract with Cuba had not been vetoed by Britain, the colonial power, and that the prices were higher than those obtained from the other West Indian islands, which helped to encourage rice farmers to increase their production, did not cut any ice with the US. During the 1962 CIA-inspired 80-day Public Service strike that was the opening salvo in the ousting of the PPP by 1964, the Cubans were accused of shipping in weapons for the PPP in the ships that collected the rice. A search debunked the charges, but an attempt was made to dynamite the Rice Marketing Board wharf where rice was being loaded onto a Cuban ship.
Jagan had also arranged for oil to be imported from Cuba in exchange for rice, to fire the electricity plant which was about to go down because of the strike-supporting dock workers’ embargo. Even though the US denied it was seeking to cancel the rice contract with Cuba, after the PNC was eased into office, it soon did do just that and was assisted by the US to jump totally into the production of long grained rice, a premium product that limited our markets.
It is our hope that the Cuban market for our rice has not raised any eyebrows in the US, since President Trump’s stance is tougher than Obama’s.