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Published May 03, 2010, 02:43 PM

Trade sending mixed signals?

WASHINGTON — A key Republican House member said April 29 that he supports easing food and medicine sales to Cuba and more liberalized travel rules, but that for the United States to make overtures to Cuba without passing the U.S. free trade agreement with Colombia may send questionable geopolitical signals about U.S. priorities.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — A key Republican House member said April 29 that he supports easing food and medicine sales to Cuba and more liberalized travel rules, but that for the United States to make overtures to Cuba without passing the U.S. free trade agreement with Colombia may send questionable geopolitical signals about U.S. priorities.

At a House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee hearing on Cuba, Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, the highest-ranking Republican in attendance, noted that President Obama and Democratic leaders have argued that Colombia has not made enough progress on labor and human rights issues, but that Cuba is violating a number of International Labor Organization conventions and has not ratified the ILO core conventions on the prohibition of the worst forms of child labor while Colombia has ratified all eight ILO conventions and the ILO has commended Colombia for making progress in protecting labor rights.

Double standard

“I worry about a possible double standard being promoted — that trade with Cuba could be fine, but trade with Colombia is a problem,” Brady said. “I am concerned about the geopolitical signals we send when we devote time and resources toward the consideration of overtures toward (Venezuelan President Hugo) Chavez-ally Cuba while at the same time we continue to allow U.S.-ally Colombia to twist in the wind.”

Brady also noted that Colombia would be a bigger market than Cuba for U.S. products because its gross domestic product and population are both four times the size of Cuba.

At the hearing, former Agriculture Secretary John Block, Wayne Smith, the former chief of the U.S. interests section in Cuba, and representatives of the Washington Office on Latin America, Human Rights Watch and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce all testified in favor of easing agricultural sales on a permanent basis and lifting the travel ban. Block noted that President Reagan, under whom he served, lifted the embargo on U.S. sales of grain to the Soviet Union and said it played a role in the fall of communism because it communicated a message that the United States was a friend of the Russian people. Block suggested that President Obama and Congress should make it easier for Cuba to engage with the United States because it would do the same business. Block noted that the 2010 Treasury appropriations bill reversed the Bush administration’s strict rules on the financing of U.S. farm sales to Cuba, but that the provision expires Oct. 1.

“The American farmer will again be held hostage until this problem is resolved permanently,” Block said, endorsing a bill introduced by House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., to clarify permanently the terms of sales to Cuba.

Reasonable choice

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., a member of Ways and Means, the congressional committee that handles taxes and trade, said, “It’s about time we got rid of these failed policies that restrict agricultural sales to Cuba. The federal government has accomplished nothing other than keeping our family farmers from accessing a promising market for their products. That’s got to change, and I’m going to keep pushing for a reasonable approach to trade with Cuba.”

Subcommittee Chairman John Tanner, D-Tenn., read a letter from Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., expressing concern about Cuba’s detention of his constituent, Alan Gross, a U.S. Agency for International Development contractor who was arrested for distributing satellite technology to promote democracy in Cuba. But Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America said that Gross’ situation shows that it would be better if the U.S. government would allow American religious and cultural leaders and students to travel to Cuba rather than sending USAID contractors to promote democracy.

Michael Kelly, a Creighton University law professor, said the U.S. government should not fully lift the embargo on business contact with Cuba without settling the $6 billion in American claims for property confiscated in the 1959 to ’60 Cuban revolution because it would send a message that the United States would not fight for the rights of its citizens abroad. But Kelly, who has a USAID contract to develop a plan for settling the property claims of Americans and Cuban exiles, warned that the settlement would have to be handled sensitively because the Afro-Cuban majority might view it as a giveaway to Americans and Caucasian Cuban exiles.

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