There’s time, admittedly not much, but time remaining in Arkansas’ U.S. Senate campaign to add an issue to the agenda, or at least propose one. It hasn’t come up because no one has brought it up, not even that segment of the Arkansas electorate — farmers — who would stand to gain from a serious discussion of: Cuba. More narrowly, our nation’s embargo on the sale of commodities, among other restrictions, to that little island, 90 miles from Florida’s tip.

There’s time, admittedly not much, but time remaining in Arkansas’ U.S. Senate campaign to add an issue to the agenda, or at least propose one. It hasn’t come up because no one has brought it up, not even that segment of the Arkansas electorate — farmers — who would stand to gain from a serious discussion of: Cuba. More narrowly, our nation’s embargo on the sale of commodities, among other restrictions, to that little island, 90 miles from Florida’s tip.


The embargo, in one or another variation and to one or another extent, is approaching its 56th anniversary. President Eisenhower got the ball rolling (or, perhaps, stopped it) when the Bearded One declared himself a Marxist-Leninist. Ike’s successor, burned by the Bay of Pigs debacle, really tightened the screws; and, some months later, the Missiles of October essentially erased any chance of diplomatic relations, and commerce, for at least a generation. That’ll show ‘em, we said.


Except it didn’t. Castro found patrons where he could and in fact already had them; the Russians, particularly, regarded with satisfaction the presence of a client state barely a charter boat ride from Miami Beach. The alliance lasted until the Soviet Union, bankrupt, fell apart. Moscow may have been broke but not even the loss of its rubles (billions, in U.S. dollars) could break the grip of the Brothers Castro. Fidel is in poor health but brother Raul is in charge, if to what extent remains uncertain.


Now the Russians are back. President Putin journeyed to Havana recently to re-establish ties with Cuba, forgiving it $32 billion in loans it owed. In exchange, reports foreign affairs maven Fareed Zakaria, Castro has tentatively approved reopening a Russian intelligence outpost Moscow had closed a dozen years ago.


As the U.S. continues to tutor the Castros in American free enterprise, those enterprising business types known as American farmers, and Arkansas rice producers in particular, are staring at product unsold, tons of it worth…


"Millions. Millions, absolutely," says Terry Harris, senior vice president for marketing at Riceland, the Stuttgart-based farmers’ cooperative. Yes, there have been sales, some, of Arkansas rice to Cuba. But not much, and none at all in a dozen years. The barriers the embargo present make the process too time-consuming and too expensive. Cuba, once the largest market for Arkansas rice and which would happily import other commodities such as wheat, corn and soy products — Cuba, 90 miles from the tip of Florida, remains off-limits.


Few politicians of either party, in Congress and the White House, are willing to tamper with the embargo. Politics is involved, profoundly: who wants to risk Florida’s 29 electoral votes by enraging its large Cuban expatriate community?


So how stand our Senate candidates? I couldn’t get a response from Mark Pryor, the Democratic incumbent; an e-mail and voice message went unanswered. In recent years Pryor has supported a loosening of export restrictions, even sponsored a couple. Tom Cotton, the GOP’s candidate, acknowledges that ending the embargo would be good for all involved "once Cuba is free and integrated into the global economy.


"But," he complains, "the Castro brothers are only interested in preserving their police state." And until they permit free elections, freedom of speech and religion and private property, "it’s in no one’s interest to legitimize a Cold War tyranny."


Well, Cuba is already integrated into the global economy, assuming its other trading partners (Canada, Latin America, most of Europe and Asia) are still on the globe; and the U.N., the World Trade Organization and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have criticized the embargo as detrimental to the American economy. As for doing business with "police states" in which human rights are limited or non-existent, the U.S. has for decades "legitimized" Russia, China, Middle Eastern monarchs and assorted tin-pot dictators in every quadrant of the planet. Interesting, that such crusaders for human rights as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International consider the U.S. embargo counterproductive.


There’s not much time remaining in the 2014 campaigns to get answers, though Arkansas voters, and certainly the farmers among them, should demand them.


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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.