FarmPolicy

December 10, 2016

AgriTalk Transcript: Senator Marco Rubio

Senator Marco Rubio (R., Fla) was a guest on Thursday’s AgriTalk radio program with Mike Adams, where the conversation focused on immigration, trade, and regulation.

This is an unofficial FarmPolicy.com transcript of their discussion.

Mr. Adams: Welcome back to AgriTalk here in Washington, D.C. Yesterday I had the opportunity to talk with Florida Senator Marco Rubio. We had an exchange back and forth, difference of opinion on Cuba. We also talked a number of ag issues. But I started off asking Senator Rubio does he have any plans, any announcements coming about possibly running for President.

I have to start off—I mean, you’ve got a great setting here, this is going to be on the radio—we keep a pretty good secret. We wouldn’t let it get out of this room. Do you want to make any announcements while you’re here?

Sen. Rubio: Yes, I do. I do. I saved a bunch of money by switching to Geico. [Laughter.] That’s actually not true, I’m still on State Farm, but I thought it was funny, you know. [Laughter.]

Mr. Adams: Be careful Brian Williams, in how you tell your stories now, okay? We don’t want you to get in trouble. Well, we’re so glad that you are with us. And let’s just talk for a little bit and then we’ll open it up to the audience. We just heard from Chairman Conaway his thoughts on how we can address the immigration issue. I know you’re very involved in this.

We look at it in this group, I think, two different ways. Obviously we want to get some kind of resolution nationally, but there’s also the ag labor component to this we’re trying to get resolved as well. How do we approach it? Does it have to be all or nothing or can it be piece by piece?

Sen. Rubio: Well, a couple points. First of all, it’s a critical issue with regards to workforce, and that’s true all over the country. Virtually, there’s no sector—there are some mechanized sectors in agriculture, but by and large agriculture is reliant upon labor. And I’ve actually met some of these folks, both in Florida and in other parts of the country, in South Carolina very recently, in a peach operation, that are dealing with labor problems.

We need a reliable system that allows us to bring to this country, on a seasonal or year-round basis, temporary workers who want to work in agriculture, but do not want to be here permanently—and those are millions of people. And there’s a recognition of that in this country. I think there is a broad recognition of that, that we need to address that. The problem is that it has been wrapped up in the broader issue of immigration, which is much more complex.

Now I would start by saying there’s a significant amount of people in this country illegally who quite frankly never want to be citizens, do not want to be permanent residents, they just want to work for nine months out of the year, or six months, or eight months, they want to go back home for a period of time, and they want to come back again next year when their labor is needed. But they’re afraid to leave because if they do, they’re going to have to sneak back in again next year, so they stay. Because again, we don’t have a cost effective program that works for every part of agriculture, and that has to be fixed.

I personally worked on negotiating the differences out there between different ag groups across the country, those who represent farm workers, on a program as part of the comprehensive approach. But the lesson of 2013 and our efforts is that you’re not going to be able to deal with something like immigration in one massive piece of legislation. And the primary reason for it is because there is the belief in this country, increasingly, rightfully so, that any massive piece of legislation will never follow through on the enforcement pieces.

And so if you do something to deal with ten million people that are here illegally, unless you enforce the law, you’re going to have ten million more a decade from now, and people aren’t prepared to do that. So I think the key to doing anything on immigration is to prove to the American people that we’re serious about enforcing our immigration laws, but as part of that, one of the things that would really relieve the pressure is to have a system that allows people to come here legally and work when their labor is necessary, and return back to their home country, and return again in the future if their labor is needed again, as it will be. And so I do have hope that we can deal with that.

And if we were only dealing with that issue, I think we could make tremendous progress. The problem has been that many advocates for immigration reform want it all or nothing, because they’re afraid that the minute agriculture gets what it wants, it will stop lobbying on behalf of immigration reform; the day technology companies get what they want, they’ll stop lobbying, and so forth, so they want to hold everyone together as a coalition, and that’s been the impediment.

Mr. Adams: The next topic—and I assume you and I are probably going to disagree on this—I just disagreed with Chairman Conaway, so…

Sen. Rubio: Yeah, okay.

Mr. Adams: Let’s talk Cuba. The President’s pushing to open up Cuba. Agriculture groups want to do more trade with Cuba. How do you feel about it?

Sen. Rubio: Well, first of all, there are agricultural goods that are allowed to be sold in Cuba, but they’re not allowed to do it on credit, and there’s a reason why: they don’t pay. And that’s a big problem. The second point I would make is the following. My interest in Cuba—this is my only interest in Cuba. I want Cubans to be free in a democracy.

I believe, in addition to my personal connection to the issue, I believe it is bad for the national security of the United States to have an anti-American dictatorship 90 miles from our shores. I’ll support any policy towards Cuba that achieves that goal.

I do not believe that a unilateral opening to Cuba will achieve that goal, for the following reason: there is no such thing as the Cuban economy. The entire Cuban economy is owned by the Cuban government, primarily the Cuban military, through a holding company by the name of GAESA, G-A-E-S-A. They own everything. They own the hotels, they own the farms, they own everything.

To do business with Cuba requires you to do business with the military dictatorship. And doing business with them is not a two-way street. It is they will pick and choose who they allow in, what they allow in on their terms, and they will not allow anything in that could provide any sort of democratic opening on the island, which is what I primarily care about in terms of the future of the Cuban people.

And that’s my concern, that you’re going to have a leadership transition, because the actuarial tables tell you that the current leaders, who are all over 80 something years of age, will not be there forever. And I want us to have leverage to be able to say if you want a better relationship with the United States, we need to see these things: we need to see independent political parties, we need to see the ability of people to organize themselves and speak openly, and have freedom of the press, and so forth. If you give these things away without any of those openings, what leverage do you have in the future for that?

And here’s one more point I would make. Every single piece of farmland in Cuba today, every major agricultural property in Cuba today was once owned by a private owner, including American companies. They were stolen. They were confiscated. There’s $7 billion worth of American claims on the island of Cuba that we were never compensated for.

If you allow the import—this is the reverse of perhaps what the farm bureaus around the country want—if you allow the import of agricultural goods from Cuba to the United States, you are allowing them to traffic in stolen goods. They stole someone’s farm, they stole someone’s equipment, and they’re now going to make a profit off what they stole without compensating, including American companies—United Fruit Company—but also individuals.

You know, my family comes from a farming background in Cuba. They weren’t landowners, they were sharecroppers. They grew tobacco. But that property today is completely in the control of the Cuban government. There’s no profit motive. That’s why Cuban cigars are no longer any good. But the point being that that’s a factor that no one’s talking about. There are $7 billion worth of claims that are completely uncompensated.

Imagine if someone came in and stole your farm and 15 years later, they are growing crops on that farm and selling it to the country you went to for a profit, using the things you…your land, your equipment, what you invested in. That’s another part of it we haven’t discussed.

Mr. Adams: In case you do have aspirations for another job somewhere down the line, what would you say to agriculture? Many in agriculture and other parts of the country not really familiar with you or your policies or what you would push for if you got that new job. What can you tell this group about your ag positions?

Sen. Rubio: Well, first of all, as I said, I have a family connection. My grandfather was the single greatest influence on my life growing up, and it all entailed…you know, he was one of 17 children. Was a labor program, I guess, that they were undergoing, but… [Laughter.]  He was the only one that couldn’t work on the [field]. He had polio when he was six years old, so he actually went out and learned how to read and write, and struggled because he was disabled from polio.

But nevertheless, Florida is an enormous agriculture state. People associate Florida with real estate, no income tax, and Walt Disney World. All are great—and beaches. But we have an enormous ag component. And it’s one that’s endangered by a number of things.

First of all, by unfair trade practices that we see, whether it’s dumping of tomatoes from Mexico or some of the other issues. But the other issue we’ve really begun to face is both environmental regulations from the EPA—we had a [numeric] nutrient content fight a year ago where they basically tried to come in and impose standards that would make the water even cleaner than what comes out of your tap, in some instances, on agriculture.

And the other threat we face is invasive species. And in particular we’re having a problem now—we’ve got a [canker] problem in Florida that almost wiped out the citrus industry, and now we have a greening problem that actually—the canker ruined the fruit, the greening destroys the trees.

And the problem with losing agriculture is when you lose agricultural land and it becomes developable now because it becomes the highest, best use, you can never get it back. Once someone builds a multifamily housing complex on a piece of agricultural land, you can never come back ten years later and turn it back into farming. And that’s a major problem. You lose the capacity to grow food and to feed your people.

We take that for granted in the United States. We have a lot of people in this country that, when you ask them where does food come from, they’ll say the supermarket. They don’t realize that someone had to grow it. And we take for granted that we have a plethora of food and that we have it in what’s basically still affordable in comparison to the rest of the world, although prices have gone up a little bit, but not necessarily because of agriculture’s fault. And we take that for granted. Food security is even more important than energy security in terms of the future of our country. And if you lose the capacity to feed your people, not to mention export and provide products to others, you lose a major component of your economy.

So what are the threats from government in that regard? The first, of course, is these environmental regulations. The second, for example, is the interpretation of existing law from regulatory agencies like the Waters of the United States issue that we’re trying to address in the budget.

And the third role government can play is with basic research. This greening issue, as I pointed out, is something that the University of Florida, through a program called [IFAS], has been doing round the clock research to try to fix. If we don’t fix that issue, it is not unforeseeable that in less than a decade we will have no Florida citrus left. That, to me, is unimaginable for a state so identified with oranges and grapefruits.

And last is I think it’s important for us to open up free and fair trade with allies and partners around the world. It has to be on terms that are fair. So I believe in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but that means that we need to have a deal with Japan that allows us to sell beef and other products into their markets. I think it’s important for these deals. It’s good for us to have millions of people around the world that can afford to buy what we grow, millions of people in the consumer class.

But it has to be on terms that are fair to the American agriculture sector, because I can tell you many of our agricultural products have to compete against other nations that heavily subsidize their industries and have zero environmental or labor regulations over their head compared to ours. And if they can undercut our growers, wipe them out, put them out of business, they then control the global market and can charge us anything they want, and as I said, we lose the growing capacity.

Mr. Adams: See, he can talk ag. There we go. All right. [Applause.]

[End of recording.]

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