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Farm interests push senators to help expand ag sales to Cuba

Farm interests push senators to help expand ag sales to Cuba
BY CHRIS ADAMS MCCLATCHY WASHINGTON BUREAU
04/21/2015 4:44 PM 04/21/2015 4:44 PM

WASHINGTON
U.S. farm interests see the potential for more than $1 billion a year in
sales to Cuba, a market that right now is hamstrung by restrictions that
remain despite the thawing of relations between the countries.

In a hearing Tuesday before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and
Forestry Committee, farmers and Obama administration officials testified
to the steps that still need to be taken if U.S. agriculture is to get
the most out of the market just 90 miles from the nation’s shores.

“The problem is rules and laws that just make it too expensive to
compete in that market,” testified Doug Keesling, a farmer from Chase, Kan.

Among the key problems: a requirement that exporters receive cash before
they’re allowed to unload their products in Cuban ports.

The ban on credit sales is just one restriction that remains despite the
warming of relations with Cuba, announced by the White House in
December. A month later, the administration relaxed some financial
restrictions on trade; since then, some members of Congress have pushed
for a full repeal of the trade embargo that’s governed most trade with
Cuba for decades.

While agriculture products can be sold to Cuba, the market is far from
free and open.

As Keesling recounted: “I can put my wheat in an elevator in Kansas,
send it by rail down to the Gulf of Mexico and put it on a ship that’s
just a couple days away from the Havana Harbor. But my wheat is still
going to lose out to wheat that has to be on a boat for a week from
Canada or two weeks from France.”

Cuba imports more than $2 billion a year in food and agricultural
products, and one expert who testified Tuesday said that with a more
open economy, fewer regulations and other changes, U.S. food and
agricultural exports to Cuba had the potential to exceed $1.2 billion
annually within five years. That’s up from less than $300 million last
year, said C. Parr Rosson, an agriculture economist at Texas A&M University.

A big boost in shipments is possible, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
told McClatchy.

“Look it’s only 90 miles offshore,” he said in an interview Tuesday
afternoon. “The American farmer is anxious to do business with the
Cubans. And I think there are things we grow and raise – pork, poultry,
soybeans – that we grow in great abundance and raise in great abundance
that the Cubans would be quite interested in having.”

He added: “I don’t think it’s beyond the pale to believe that there is
that type of opportunity, so long as we don’t impose on ourselves
unnecessary restrictions and create friction in that relationship.”

The U.S. farm lobby is pushing hard for a repeal of the trade embargo,
and the hearing was generally friendly to that position, which remains
controversial in Congress as a whole. A bill has been introduced to
eliminate trade restrictions with Cuba, and it has supporters from both
sides of the aisle.

But it faces long odds. At best, according to U.S.-Cuba experts, trade
advocates are in for a long battle. Experts said it was unlikely that
this Congress would end the embargo, which has the potential to divide
the Republican Party.

Short of full repeal, experts said, politicians might find agreement on
further relaxing financial regulations, such as the credit ban.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ CONTRIBUTED TO THIS STORY.

Email: cadams@mcclatchydc.com. Twitter: @CAdamsMcClatchy

Source: Farm interests push senators to help expand ag sales to Cuba |
Miami Herald Miami Herald –
http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/national/article19165383.html

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