Stabenow visiting Cuba as part of congressional trip

(Photo: Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

(Photo: Todd McInturf / The Detroit News)

Washington — Sen. Debbie Stabenow is headed to Cuba this weekend as part of a congressional delegation — about a month after the Obama administration announced it was moving to normalize relations.

This is her second trip to Cuba since 2013. Stabenow, who is the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, has called for changes in U.S. sanctions to allow for exports of U.S.-made goods to Cuba.

“The policy changes President Obama announced last month will boost agriculture, encourage manufacturing, and create jobs in America by increasing our country’s ability to export goods and products, including many made or grown right here in Michigan,” said Stabenow, D-Lansing, in a statement. “During my time in Cuba, I will be meeting with high-ranking officials and agricultural leaders to make sure these changes will boost our economy and serve the best interests of our farmers, manufacturers and families.”

The trip will be led by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and will include Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Reps. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., and Peter Welch, D-Vt.

Last month, Stabenow said the actions Obama announced also “will serve as the basis for lasting and meaningful political reforms in Cuba that will finally bring freedom to the Cuban people.”

New rules announced by the U.S. Treasury on Thursday make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba under 12 separate categories; they no longer must apply a license before traveling — and now can bring back up to $400 in goods including — $100 in alcohol or tobacco — and can now use credit cards in Cuba. In 2011, U.S. rules made it easier for Americans to visit Cuba for educational, religious, humanitarian, cultural or journalism trips.

Cuba also announced this week it freed 53 political prisoners sought by the United States.

But the changes won’t immediately allow the export of vehicles from U.S. automakers, which have been barred from selling new cars to the island for a half-century.

Cubans continue to drive tens of thousand of chrome and tail fin Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ford and other U.S. models of the 1950s — largely because the Cuban government has barred the import of nearly all foreign cars — and in recent years, made it extremely expensive to buy new vehicles.

“This announcement is also good news for the U.S. economy. Cuba sits just 90 miles off our coast and has an economy of more than $68 billion. Yet, up to this point, American firms have been forced to cede business to foreign competitors. Of particular interest to my hometown of Detroit, the people of Cuba — who must famously rely on American cars made before 1959 — may soon be able to buy American cars and automotive parts once again,” Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, said last month.

But administration officials said Congress would need to lift the embargo before it could take that step. Cuba has taken some modest steps to make it easier for its citizens to buy or sell a car — or buy a new car.

Patrick Anderson of the East Lansing-based Anderson Economic Group said “a number of key Michigan industries stand to benefit from opening up relations with Cuba. The auto industry, in particular, will gain an important export market; tourism will shift, with more Michigan residents traveling to Cuba and more Cubans coming here; and agricultural exports and imports will grow.”

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