Terry Vinduska of Marion recently returned from a trip to the Caribbean as an officer of the U.S. Grains Council. He and five other members visited the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Panama.
In Colombia, they visited with grain industry officials about the need for American grain imports. Under current U.S. law, grain exports to Colombia are restricted by high tariffs.
In November 2006, United States and Colombian administrations signed the Colombian Free Trade Agreement. However, the agreement has not been ratified by the U.S. Congress.
Vinduska said he learned that large, U.S. labor unions have swayed legislators to oppose the agreement because two labor leaders in Colombia were reportedly killed by paramilitaries several years ago.
“If we think we are hurting the drug lords, we’re not,” Vinduska said. “It’s the poor that are being hurt.”
Because of the trade restrictions, Colombia has to import grain from countries that are farther away. That fact and the lack of competition makes the grain cost more.
“What surprised me the most was the frustration local importers and consumers expressed over their inability to purchase from the United States,” Vinduska said. “Everyone we talked to wants to purchase U.S. grains. They recognized the United States as a long-term, reliable supplier and prefer to trade with the U.S.”
A majority of Colombian people eat a steady diet of corn flat bread, Vinduska said. Their major source of protein is eggs. There is a small hog industry.
Vinduska visited a large grocery store in Bogota, the capital city of Colombia. He said far more poultry than pork was offered for sale, as most shoppers can’t afford pork. Only premium beef cuts were available and were affordable only for the wealthy.
The USGC officers met with grain importers and feed industry managers. They learned that much of the milled grain is sold in bags. Roads are poor and can’t handle heavy loads. Shipping a load of grain from the United States to Colombia is faster than hauling feed from mills into mountainous regions. It is done mostly by small trucks or carts.
The officers also met with managers of a poultry cooperative. Several poultry operators have combined to produce and market poultry meat and eggs. To reduce costs, the cooperative is moving its headquarters closer to a port. It hopes to sell broilers to Europe.
According to Vinduska, the U.S. grain industry loses $500 million a year in sales to Colombia because of no free trade agreement. At least $310 to $320 million of that is in lost corn sales.
He said opening the Colombian market would provide four times as much business as opening the Cuban market.
“Ratifying the Colombian Trade Promotion Agreement will reduce feed and food costs (for Colombians) while simultaneously supporting the U.S. market share,” Vinduska said. “How long must we wait and how many dollars must the U.S. agricultural sector lose before Congress will pass this trade agreement?”
Council members stopped in Panama City, Panama, for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the official opening of a regional U.S. Grains Council office.
The office is expected to provide a key presence in the region as the council continues its work of developing markets and enabling trade.
While in Panama, Vinduska visited the Panama Canal. A new canal is being built parallel to the present canal. It will accommodate the largest oceangoing vessels and will almost double the capacity.
The group spent one week in Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. Vinduska said he didn’t have a chance to get out into the countryside.
He said the city was dirtier and buildings less well-kept than in Bogota, but the people were friendly and outgoing.
The group witnessed a parade that went on for hours. It featured family groups, organizations, and musical groups all dressed in colorful costumes. Sometimes, they would stop and talk with viewers along the route.
Vinduska said there were armed guards at every corner around the area where his hotel was located, but he also noticed that people were walking around more freely than they were when he visited two years ago.
The beach at Santo Domingo was rocky and steep with no sand beaches for swimming.
The business people he met with were top-quality managers, he said. They were progressive and forward looking.
Vinduska said his group learned about the difficulties in providing aid for Haiti from the Dominican Republic. He said there are no roads, only trails, through the mountainous areas between the two countries.
Vinduska is a member of the Kansas Corn Commission and vice chairman of the U.S. Grains Council. He will become chairman in July. The council makes one trip abroad every year.
“It’s a great opportunity to soak up different cultures and see the world around us,” he said.