WASHINGTON A handful of experts urged the House Committee on Agriculture on Wednesday to loosen restrictions on farm trade with Cuba, as legislators further contemplate U.S.-Cuba ties.
Four witnesses from the agricultural industry encouraged the committee to support the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, a bill that would repeal restrictions on export financing for agriculture shipments to Cuba.
“I believe the Cuban market holds great promise for U.S. farmers,” said Mark Isbell, an Arkansas rice farmer who spoke on behalf of the USA Rice Federation. “The obstacles we face in selling our rice to Cuba are statutory obstacles. With your help, these obstacles can be overcome.”
Matt Gibson, vice president of Bunge North America Grain Division, representing the North American Export Grain Association, argued that the U.S. and Cuba’s views on trade “were aligned.”
“U.S. farmers want the freedom to sell their product into a market which appreciates the high-quality products the United States has to offer. And Cubans would like to buy high-quality ingredients at a competitive price,” Gibson said. “Both seek access to markets.”
In an attempt to further normalize relations with Cuba, the Obama administration expanded authorized travel to Cuba and lifted financing restrictions on most exports in January. Agriculture, however, was excluded. Exports still can’t be purchased with credit, only cash – a factor that experts said impaired trade.
“The Cubans need flexibility in attaining credit to purchase our products,” Isbell said. “Globally, everyone has offered it to them except for the U.S.”
This may change with the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, introduced to the House of Representatives last October by Arkansas Republican Rep. Rick Crawford. The bill is expected to be considered by the committee before January.
Even with restrictions, exporting agriculture to Cuba is not a new concept. Certain American agricultural and medical goods have been approved for export since the Clinton administration passed the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act in 2000.
Meanwhile, the only witness opposed to lifting sanctions, Mauricio Claver-Carone, the executive director of Cuba Democracy Advocates, described Cuba’s government as a “company” that “values food over people.”
“Let’s debunk a myth,” Claver-Carone said. “Financing agricultural transactions with Cuba isn’t about assisting small and midsize farmers on the island, but about financing the monopoly of the Castro regime.”
Committee Chairman Mike Conaway of Texas, who presided over the hearing, spoke in favor of lifting restrictions, despite being “firmly opposed to lifting the embargo or restrictions on travel.”
“There lays an opportunity, albeit a rather narrow one, to make changes that will positively benefit both agricultural producers at home while contributing to economic growth in Cuba,” said Conaway, a Republican. He co-sponsored the largely bipartisan Cuba Agricultural Exports Act along with ranking member Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.
“I think we all look forward to the day when the United States enjoys full, normalized relations with Cuba,” Conaway said.
Sophie Ota, In Cuba Today
September 15, 2016