On Nov. 8, 2016 Arkansas awarded Donald Trump 60 percent of its popular vote and, accordingly, its six electoral votes.
On June 15, 2017, Trump rewarded Arkansas by slapping it upside the head.
The eastern half of the state took the brunt of the blow, but the impact shook jowls on the other side as well.
Before we get to the meat of it, and the rice and wheat and poultry and manufactured goods of it, recall that in 2008 and 2012 Arkansas slapped Barack Obama upside the head, rejecting him by about the margin it awarded Mr. Trump. Obama didn’t feel a thing, really: he swamped first John McCain and then Mitt Romney in the electoral college.
Now, it’s more than possible that Obama had in mind issues aside from Arkansas agriculture when he reversed a half-century of American foreign policy, implemented by a predecessor of his own party (John F. Kennedy) and maintained by the next eight men who succeeded him in the Oval Office. In re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, Obama’s principal objective was to reduce tensions with all Latin America, edge the little island away from U.S. adversaries and nudge it closer to democracy through the benefits of trade, commerce and tourism. In so doing, Obama sent Arkansas farmers and ranchers, who had overwhelmingly disdained him at the polls, into ecstasy.
It wasn’t rum or cigars or any other Cuban commodity that Arkansas producers contemplated. They were thinking not imports but exports, notably rice, which, you may have heard, Arkansas grows in abundance. Americans may crave Cuban booze and stogies but Cubans consume rice almost on a par with Asians: the tiny country’s population of less than 12 million (six U.S. states are larger) devour nearly a million metric tons of rice annually, 60 percent of it imported though not a grain of it from Arkansas. No, Cuba buys its rice from China, Thailand and Vietnam, mostly, and pays at least $300 million for it. Not because it wants to, or because it has never been an Arkansas customer, or because Cubans prefer Asian varieties to the vastly superior Grand Prairie product.
Arkansas exporters have lost untold millions, probably billions, of dollars since Kennedy imposed the trade embargo in 1962. The sanction was eased about 20 years ago, making possible some limited transactions, only to be tightened again in 2005, effectively ending rice sales to Cuba. In the interim, poultry (think Arkansas, think Tyson Foods, Inc.) has fared rather better, with $78 million in 2015 sales to Cuba. But the nation’s aggregate farm exports to Cuba, at $150 million, is a fraction of the $2 billion market sitting but 90 miles from the tip of Florida.
Thus the elation of Arkansas’s ag establishment at Obama’s initiative. Thus, upon its reversal by Mr. Trump, despair, though “disappointment” is how the Arkansas Farm Bureau styles it. Similar assessments come from Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Rick Crawford, who have advocated an open door commodities trade policy with Cuba. Gov. Asa Hutchinson traveled to Cuba a couple years ago and has been a consistent supporter of lower barriers, so color him disappointed as well.
Disappointment, irritation or anger — there may be an economic basis for it but no political justification. Mr. Trump was simply keeping a campaign promise. Indeed, in one of his very first speeches (in Florida) as a candidate Mr. Trump vowed to jettison Obama’s trade pact. With help from the Miami area’s community of Cuban exiles and their descendants, the largest in the U.S., Mr. Trump won Florida.
As noted, he won Arkansas, too. He won the rice-rich First and Fourth Congressional districts with nearly two-thirds of the vote. He carried the Third District, the nation’s poultry capitol, with 62 percent. He did so against an opponent, name of Clinton, who vowed to be even more aggressive than Obama in enabling farm exports to Cuba.
Messrs. Boozman, Crawford and Hutchinson were hardly unaware of Candidate Trump’s anti-Cuba trade stance. Nor were the other four members of the state’s congressional delegation, nor all the state’s senior Republican officeholders. All of them, or most of them, knew him to be spectacularly unqualified for the White House. All of them, to a person, endorsed Mr. Trump.
The president’s executive order stopped short of terminating all relations with Cuba. Some trade will continue but on a comparatively miniscule scale, owing to the cash-up-front requirement as opposed to the credit arrangements common to the import-export market. And some tourism will be permitted, if under another name. With farm income continuing to sag (too much product, not enough customers) it’s not clear how many Arkansas farmers will vacation in Cuba. Those who do can rest easy: if they can’t sell Havana rice or chicken, they can at least bring back all the rum and cigars they want.