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Published July 06, 2010, 10:12 AM

Legislation would smooth way for US ag sales to Cuba

WASHINGTON — The House Agriculture Committee voted June 30 to advance legislation sponsored by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., to end the ban on American travel to Cuba and ease the financial regulations on sales of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — The House Agriculture Committee voted June 30 to advance legislation sponsored by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., to end the ban on American travel to Cuba and ease the financial regulations on sales of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba.

The vote was a major victory for Peterson, who noted that the Agriculture committee had made “more progress” on the issue of relations with Cuba than anyone else had made in years.

The bipartisan vote was 25 to 20, with four Republicans joining the Democrats in favor of the measure. Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., co-sponsored the legislation, but other Republicans bitterly opposed it. The four committee Republicans who voted for the bill were Moran and Reps. Tim Johnson of Illinois, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming. The committee Democrats who voted against it were Reps. Joe Baca of California, Kathleen Dahlkemper of Pennsylvania, Jim Marshall of Georgia, Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, Mark Schauer of Michigan and Kurt Schrader of Oregon. House Agriculture ranking member Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who had not earlier indicated a position, voted against the measure.

A step forward

Peterson said in a statement, “I am proud to say that today, the House Agriculture Committee took a courageous vote to end the short-sighted and failed policy that limits American agriculture’s access to the Cuban market. “This legislation is the right policy at the right time. We have tried to isolate Cuba for more than fifty years, and it has not worked. As it has in other countries, perhaps increasing trade with Cuba will encourage democratic progress.”

Moran said, “Today’s vote is a step in the right direction and a victory for America’s farmers and ranchers. Cuba must import nearly 85 percent of its food and current U.S. trade policies hurt American farmers and ranchers by making it more expensive for Cuba to purchase U.S. agriculture products. This legislation will standardize our trade policies, increase export sales and create thousands of American jobs without increasing the deficit.”

Agriculture, business and humanitarian groups favored the legislation while anti-Castro groups opposed it. Baca and Republicans proposed a series of amendments to take out the travel language or delay implementation of the bill, but Peterson ruled all of them out of order. The Republicans appealed those rulings, but lost on roll call votes on each.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Foreign Trade Council and the National Farmers Union, which favored it, said that they would use the vote in analyzing the performance of members of Congress. The American Farm Bureau Federation, which also favored it, said it does not score the performance of legislators but would publish the vote in its newsletter.

Likelihood of passage?

Farm leaders were most interested in making permanent changes to the rules that the Bush administration put in place to make financial arrangements on sales to Cuba more difficult, but they also said that increasing tourism to Cuba also will increase the market for agricultural sales because hotels catering to American tourists would need more American food. Opponents of the bill argued that making it possible for Americans to travel to Cuba would put more money in the hands of the Castro government.

The bill also must be referred to the House Foreign Affairs and Financial Services committees, but there have been rumors that they may waive action on it, which would pave the way for it to move to the House floor. Supporters of the bill have said they think that if it passes the House, it also would pass the Senate.

President Obama has made some moves to improve relations with Cuba, but the administration has not been satisfied with the Castro government’s response. Peterson said, however, that he thinks Obama would sign the bill if Congress passes it.

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