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Published March 15, 2010, 10:12 AM

Lawmaker spar over easing of Cuba restrictions

WASHINGTON — Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., made an impassioned case March 11 for a bill to ease U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba and end a ban on American travel to the island, but he got little support from fellow Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., made an impassioned case March 11 for a bill to ease U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba and end a ban on American travel to the island, but he got little support from fellow Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee.

Moran, who is in a primary race with Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., for the Republican nomination to replace Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said at a hearing that the bill he is co-sponsoring with House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., would increase American farmers’ sales to Cuba while the end of the travel ban would perform “a much more noble cause” by allowing the Cuban people to have contact with Americans and learn about democracy.

“We deal with Communist countries and offer them credit,” Moran said. “Who is the biggest creditor? China? What a double standard we have created in this country. We don’t worry about selling Boeing aircraft to China, but we don’t want to sell wheat to Cuba.”

China comparison

Peterson and other Democrats praised Moran for his stand, but House Agriculture ranking member Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said he could support agricultural sales to Cuba on humanitarian grounds, but could go no further. Cuba is worse than China, Lucas said, because it has maintained government control over the economy while China has liberalized its economy. American tourist spending in Cuba, Lucas said, would impede Cuban development of own its agricultural sector by helping Cuba’s centralized economy survive.

“Our priority should be finding a way to increase agriculture exports to help meet the food needs of the Cuban people without supporting Cuba’s oppressive government,” Lucas said.

Other Republicans joined Lucas in opposing any liberalization of American travel to Cuba. Rep. Debbie Halvorson, D-Ill., also said she had heard objections to travel provision.

Cubans have been buying U.S. agricultural products since a 2000 law exempted sales of U.S. agricultural products from the general embargo on doing business with Cuba, but the Bush administration tightened up the rules on payment terms in 2005. A provision in the fiscal year ’10 Omnibus Appropriations Act imposed the payment terms that were in place before the Bush administration changed them, but only through this fiscal year.

The Peterson-Moran bill would permanently change the definition of “payment of cash in advance” to mean payment before the goods are delivered rather than before they are shipped, allow Cuba to make cash payments directly to U.S. banks and end the travel ban. It would not allow U.S. banks to extend credit to Cuba.

Ag group support

American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman, National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson and commodity group leaders vigorously endorsed the bill in testimony. The farm leaders said that ending the travel ban would increase demand for U.S. agricultural products because Cuba would need the U.S. products to cater to tourists and because the increased tourism business would increase Cubans’ incomes and allow them to buy U.S. food products.

In an interview, Johnson said he thinks the decline in U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba — which have fallen from $710 million in 2008 to $528 million in 2009 — will lead farm groups to push Congress to pass the Peterson-Moran bill or at least extend the payment provisions in the appropriations bill for another year.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, R-Minn., D-Minn., and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., introduced the Peterson-Moran bill March 11 in the Senate.

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