U.S. farm groups push congress to ease food exports to Cuba

WASHINGTON – Billy Bob Brown, a farmer in
Panhandle, Texas, grows enthusiastic when he discusses his 2008 trip to Cuba,
where he and three partners showed off Texas sausages, cakes and frozen
desserts to Cuban tourism executives.

Brown, who is on the board of directors of
the Texas Farm Bureau, has fond memories of the Cubans’ industriousness and kindness
toward his group, and of their interest in importing American products. “I’d
look forward to going back as an opportunity to bring Texas agricultural goods
back to Cuba,” said Brown, 71, who grows wheat, corn, cotton and grain sorghum
on his 1,214-hectare farm.

He could get that chance if a coalition of
interests that includes the Texas Farm Bureau persuades Congress to lift some
restrictions on exports to Cuba and to remove a travel ban that has lasted
decades. The House Agriculture Committee approved a bill to accomplish that
last month, and the full House could vote on the bill before the end of the
summer.

To a large extent, the success of the
pro-export lobby – which includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National
Farmers Union and state farm groups – will depend on its ability to re frame
the debate over Cuba in terms of American national interest, rather than the
stickier issues related to human rights concerns, opposition to communism or
the government of Raul Castro.

To the extent that they do concern
themselves with Cuba’s internal politics, groups that favour increased exports
and travel argue that greater American influence would nurture any Cuban
democratic aspirations.

The farm lobby’s efforts extend back at
least a decade. In August 1999, for instance, another group of Texas farmers
and representatives visited Havana for five days to explore selling its goods
there. At the time, the situation seemed favourable.

President Bill Clinton had relaxed some
restrictions on travel, and it was relatively easy to arrange the trip through
a congressional contact. On their visit, members of the Texas delegation held a
press conference, met with commodities officials and had mojitos and dinner
with Fidel Castro, then the president.

Southern farmers and the trade groups that
represent them say that they believe that their proximity to Cuba and their
history as one of its biggest food suppliers would make them natural exporters
to the island.

“In this day and age, we’re looking for any
kind of market that we can re-establish,” said Curt Mowery, a rice farmer in
Sandy Point, Texas, who went on the 1999 Farm Bureau trip. The Cubans, Mowery
said, “like rice, and they like American rice.”

But Florida’s role in George W. Bush’s
presidential victory in 2000 and the vocal Cuban-Americans in the Miami area
who supported the embargo ensured that Bush would not ease the restrictions,
even if some of the calls to do so were coming from Texas, his home state.

“For the eight years that President Bush
was there, we basically put Cuba trade on the back burner simply because we
knew we didn’t have a chance to get anything done,” said Stephen J. Pringle, a
legislative director at the Texas Farm Bureau who was also on the 1999 trip.

Though President Barack Obama has
criticized the Cuban government’s “clenched fist” toward its people, he acted
in 2009 to lift limitations on Cuban-Americans’ travel to the country and on
the amount of money that can be sent to relatives.

“If Congress takes the lead, then I think
he would gladly follow,” said Anya Landau French, director of the U.S.-Cuba
Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation.
But groups in favour of maintaining restrictions are more organized than ever,
said Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst at the Lexington Institute, a research
group. Despite efforts by the Texas Farm Bureau to persuade the three Texans on
the Agriculture Committee to vote to lift restrictions, only one, Representative
Henry Cuellar, a Democrat, voted to advance the bill.

Opponents of the House bill point to
continued human rights violations in the country, and they criticize farm-state
legislators for linking a reversal of the travel ban – which they argue would
enrich the Castro government while doing little to benefit ordinary Cubans –
with more popular provisions lifting export restrictions.

Hard-line Cuban-American groups in Florida
remain firmly against engaging the government, and, despite demographic shifts
that may be lessening those groups’ numbers, they remain a powerful political
force.
Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, has pledged to block a Senate
version of the bill, though Senator Michael B. Enzi, Republican of Wyoming, and
Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, say they have enough votes to
overcome a filibuster.
Rice farmers in particular have a great deal at stake in the legislation. Even
under the Bush administration, they were able to ship some rice to Cuba, but
the amount depended on how strictly the Treasury Department interpreted
financing restrictions. In 2004, rice producers in the United States shipped
$64 million worth of rice to Cuba. After the administration more stringently
applied rules requiring advance cash payment, rice exports dropped to $24 million
in 2007. In 2008 they were less than $7 million, and in 2009, rice farmers sent
nothing.

Cuba gets much of its rice from Southeast
Asia, and farmers believe the Cubans would be quick to switch to American
suppliers to cut down on shipping time and freight costs.

“They could consume the entire rice crop of
Texas and part of Louisiana,” Mowery said.

The USA Rice Federation estimates that if
export restrictions were lifted, American farmers could eventually send 400,000
to 600,000 metric tons of rice to Cuba every year.

Far from being criticized at home for
spending time with Castro, Pringle said he was praised when he returned to
Texas. “When you start talking to the average Texas citizen,” he said, “all of
them would love to go to Cuba.”

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