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Heitkamp hopeful trade restrictions with Cuba will soon be lifted

WASHINGTON - Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she was optimistic North Dakotans will soon have an easier time conducting trade with Cuba after her recent visit to the island nation.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. Dave Wallis / The Forum
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. Dave Wallis / The Forum

WASHINGTON – Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she was optimistic North Dakotans will soon have an easier time conducting trade with Cuba after her recent visit to the island nation.

Heitkamp joined President Barack Obama, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and others earlier this week on the first trip to Cuba by a sitting American president since Calvin Coolidge.

Heitkamp said she met with entrepreneurs, business leaders and members of Cuban President Raul Castro's government while on her second trip to the country, and said North Dakota may soon be in prime position to take advantage of potential easement of trade sanctions.

"When you run into folks in the Cuban government, they will have met North Dakotans," Heitkamp said. "And they're also very familiar with the quality of the products we sell. Minnesota has been maybe a little more aggressive, but they know our part of the country and what we can bring.

"After a 50-year trade embargo, this visit to Cuba reinforced that it's time for a different approach."

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The senator's focus for the trip was agriculture. Heitkamp said North Dakota crops-particularly beans, peas and lentils-will be in high demand if accessibility to the market is opened.

Several restaurant operators said running their business has been difficult because of inconsistent access to food, Heitkamp said.

"They're having a hard time sourcing their food. They say they can't really do any menu planning because they don't know what's going to be available," she said. "They would love more stability in the food chain, more market-to-table connections with growers."

Heitkamp said certain social reforms by Castro have helped, like allowing co-op and individually owned farms. Since moving from strictly state-owned farms, the 30 percent of farmland operated by individuals and co-ops are yielding about 60 percent of the country's food output.

"You see the success of allowing people to make their own decisions and be entrepreneurial. Cuba is a huge importer of food, and part of that is because farms aren't as efficient there," Heitkamp said. "But with these reforms, they're experiencing some very successful increases in productivity."

American crops would help bridge the gap while Cuba catches up with modern technology, but any American export to Cuba must be paid for up front, making it particularly difficult on small-business owners trying to bring in American goods. Heitkamp is co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill to allow financing on U.S. exports to open up the Cuban market for Americans while easing the burden on Cuban businesses.

"The easiest thing to do would be to lift the embargo," Heitkamp said. "There are some people that are hopeful that could happen by the end of this year, but I think that's less likely than passing some of these smaller bills like the travel ban."

Even with lifting the embargo, Heitkamp said the country's infrastructure would need major overhauls to keep up with an increase in American goods-including U.S. tourists.

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"They've been isolated for so long, they don't have some of the infrastructure you would see in other places," she said. "So the idea that if you lift the travel ban, (Cuba) may have 4 million new tourists (per year), I don't know what they would do with them. ... Being there, you see that the current state of the infrastructure needs to be improved for travelers to really take advantage of the opportunities coming their way. This was a historic event, but it was just one step."

Related Topics: HEIDI HEITKAMP
Robb Jeffries (he/him) is the Night Editor for InForum.com and The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. Robb can be reached at rjeffries@forumcomm.com.
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