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U.S. agriculture delegation visits Cuba, protests embargo

U.S. agriculture delegation visits Cuba, protests embargo
BY MARC FRANK AND DANIEL TROTTA
HAVANA Mon Mar 2, 2015 6:14pm EST

(Reuters) – The most important U.S. agricultural delegation to visit
Cuba in more than a decade began three days of meetings on Monday,
hoping to find potential business partners, while urging the U.S.
Congress to lift the U.S. embargo on trade with the island.

Two former agriculture secretaries, a number of state agriculture
officials and representatives of various state farm bureaus are among
the 95 people making the trip, which was organized by the U.S.
Agriculture Coalition for Cuba. That group was formed after the Dec. 17
announcement the United States and Communist-run Cuba would restore
diplomatic relations.

“The message we hope will get back to Washington is that we are a
unifying voice that would like to see Congress act in 2015 and end the
embargo,” Cargill executive Devry Boughner Vorwerk, chairwoman of the
coalition, said in an interview.

The coalition says U.S. farmers are hungry for a $2 billion market so
close to home and frustrated by U.S. restrictions.

The United States created an embargo exception in 2000 to allow food
sales, but it still denies Cuba credit, forcing it to pay cash up front.

U.S. food sales to Cuba fell in 2014 to $291 million, from a peak of
$710 million peak in 2008. The coalition wants U.S. exports to top $1
billion, about half the value of Cuba’s food imports today.

U.S. farmers can renew corn, wheat and rice exports to Cuba, which have
fallen sharply, while importers want to explore Cuban seafood, winter
vegetables, citrus and tobacco, coalition members said. There was
particular interest in high-margin organic products from Cuba.

While President Barack Obama has loosened some trade and travel
restrictions, most of the embargo remains in place and can only be ended
by Congress, now in Republican control.

Vorwerk said a majority in Congress supports lifting the embargo but
legislation has been blocked by the Republican leadership, which the
coalition will target.

“As we continue to have this conversation we will be able to change
minds,” Vorwerk told a news conference.

Republicans traditionally support Cuba sanctions to punish the Communist
government, which stifles dissent and controls the media.

Coalition member Gary Heathcott, a Republican campaign consultant from
Arkansas, said promoting business and farming should be easy for
Republicans to support.”At the end of the day, Republicans are about
business,” Heathcott said. “It doesn’t get any more grass roots and
Middle America than the farm industry.”

(Reporting by Marc Frank and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and
Steve Orlofsky)

Source: U.S. agriculture delegation visits Cuba, protests embargo |
Reuters –
http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/03/02/us-cuba-usa-food-idUSKBN0LY1KQ20150302

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