- Associated Press - Friday, May 13, 2016

LYONS, Kan. (AP) - With each trip, Rice County farmer Doug Keesling is seeing a different Cuba.

The fifth-generation farmer sat at his kitchen table one spring afternoon, wheat fields surrounding his farmstead. He has made four trips to Cuba in the past year representing Kansas Wheat.

The Hutchinson News (http://j.mp/1Ygogug ) reports that the latest journey was in late March, amid President Obama’s own trip to the country - the first trip for a president in nearly 90 years.

Keesling is seeing change in the communist country even just a year later.

For starters, getting to Cuba is easier. He flew American Airlines. He saw signs of an economic uptick. Residents, he said, are more entrepreneurial, from the farmers’ markets to opening restaurants from their homes.

Also, he stayed in a home-turned-vacation property by San Francisco-based Airbnb, a new offering in recent months.

Moreover, for the first time, he also had cell service.

“The last trip was the first trip I was able to use Verizon there,” Keesling said.

Sure, there are many things that are the same. Cuba is still a communist country. It still being led by a Castro. And, the decades-old U.S. embargo against Cuba remains intact.

For the first time since the embargo was put in place 55 years ago, however, Keesling sees a glimmer of hope. During his trip to the island country in late March, Obama called for Congress to lift the embargo, which, he has said, could help the well-being of the Cuban people.

Keesling was part of a delegation from the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba that was asked by the U.S. State Department to make the trip during Obama’s visit. Keesling, co-chair of USACC’s State Support Committee, was the only farmer in attendance.

If the embargo is lifted, Cuba would become a growing market for the United States, he said. As a Kansas wheat farmer, that potential was obvious every time he saw a meal that included bread. Cubans, he said, eat a lot of bread.

“It could help Kansas wheat farmers sell 10 percent of their wheat crop to a country that is just 90 miles off the coast,” said Keesling Tuesday. “That might not sound significant. But the difference of 10 percent sometimes makes a huge swing in the market.”

“Everything we do leads to Congress to get this changed,” said Keesling.

Bills in Congress, including one sponsored by Sen. Jerry Moran, could help break down the trade barriers, he said.

On his first trip in March 2015, which included representatives from 100 different companies, Keesling said he learned more about what Cuba needs. For instance, the country can’t raise much wheat or soybeans effectively.

Keesling said there are seven flour mills in Cuba. Six are owned by the government and the other is a joint venture between Cuba and a Mexican company.

Cuba has been trading with countries in the European Union and Canada, Keesling said. The embargo has been in place since 1960.

According to Kansas Wheat, Cuba is the largest wheat market in the Caribbean, but U.S. exports have dried up completely since 2011.

“From a logistics standpoint, we are the closest and the cheapest market,” Keesling said.

But the embargo makes trade difficult. A few years ago, Obama tweaked the law, which previously made payment on exports due before the ship was even loaded. The law now requires that exporters receive cash before they are allowed to unload in a Cuban port.

Other countries, however, work with Cuba on financing, some even not requiring payment until the products are purchased by consumers.

But maybe that is ending. This isn’t the same Cuba of 10 or 20 years ago, Keesling said.

While he and Obama were in the country, he saw American and Cuban flags flying over houses. There was even a release of a thousand doves at the start of a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Cuban National Team that both Obama and Keesling attended.

At the game, Obama shook every player’s hand, Keesling said.

He said he gets asked a lot about the human rights of Cubans. Keesling says from what he sees first hand, there is improvement.

“I’ve been multiple times now in the last year, and when I look back from now to when I first went, things have improved a lot for the Cuban people, and I see more and more improvement every day,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with the entrepreneurship I see of the Cuban people - wanting to go out and do more - and some of that is the government is allowing them to do more.

“What I saw was a government trying to figure out a way to bring in foreign money in an effort to better their people. As an American, that is what I want to hear.”

Keesling said there needs to be encouragement of congressional leaders to vote to open up or to end the embargo.

“A lot of this is education on a perception, because many of us have perceptions on issues,” he said. “And until we can physically be the one to go and experience it with our own eyes, we all have a perception of things. And sometimes your perceptions are wrong. My perception of Cuba was a lot different before I went to what it is today.”

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Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, http://www.hutchnews.com

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