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Arkansas congressman pulls back on Cuba credit push

Arkansas congressman pulls back on Cuba credit push
Shifting focus to long term, he says
By Stephen Steed

A proposed amendment that would have allowed U.S. producers to extend
credit to Cuba for agricultural imports was withdrawn Wednesday by U.S.
Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., who announced that he will work with south
Florida legislators, long opposed to opening trade with the communist
island-nation, to find a longer-term solution.

Crawford, whose 1st District encompasses eastern and northern Arkansas,
made the surprise announcement Wednesday night on the House floor.

In a telephone interview Thursday afternoon, Crawford said his
amendment, even if passed, would have been good only for one fiscal year.

“We’ve had a mindset for 50 years that a trade embargo somehow is going
to weaken the Castro regime,” Crawford said. “I think the agreement we
came to last night is better than anything we’ve ever done on this issue.”

Crawford thanked U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who followed
Crawford in making remarks from the House well that were televised
Wednesday by C-SPAN.

“Rep. Diaz-Balart came down to the floor and gave me his word,” Crawford
said about agreeing to work together toward a long-term solution.
Crawford said he also has support from members of the House agriculture,
financial services and foreign affairs committees. “I don’t know how
much more binding you can get than that — to go on national television
and say you’re looking for a better solution.”

As diplomatic ties with Cuba have been relaxed over the past year,
Arkansas farmers have been clamoring to sell their goods there but have
been stymied by an embargo that’s been in place since 1962. Arkansas
leads the U.S. in rice production and is second in the nation in poultry

Rice and poultry producers say Arkansas exports to Cuba could amount to
as much as $40 million a year. Total U.S. exports to Cuba have been
estimated as reaching $4 billion. Currently Arkansas’ agriculture
industry is valued at $20 billion per year.

“Cuba represents a great opportunity for Arkansas’ economy, most notably
our agricultural sector,” Mike Preston, executive director of the
Arkansas Economic Development Commission, said in a statement. “While we
expect Cuba’s agricultural imports to be significant, we also see
opportunities for other sectors of Arkansas’ economy to export products
there such as steel and manufactured goods. To be competitive in today’s
global economy, it is imperative that Arkansas companies look for new
markets, and Cuba is a perfect example of a new export opportunity.”

Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward said Arkansas rice could reach
Cuba in as few as three days, making Arkansas an intriguing importer
option for that country. Ward said it can take up to 30 days for
products to be shipped from Vietnam where Cuba now gets much of its rice.

While Americans can ship goods to Cuba, the goods must be paid for in
advance with cash. U.S. law forbids the extension of credit to Cuba.

Lacking the cash to trade with the U.S., Cuba has turned to other
nations for imports. Crawford sought to change that last fall by
introducing the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, or House Resolution 3687.
With no movement on that bill, Crawford recently attached an amendment
to an appropriations bill essentially seeking the same result —
allowing Cuba to buy on credit.

Lawmakers from south Florida, which has a large Cuban-American
population, have long opposed lifting the embargo at least until the
Cuban government addresses human-rights abuses.

Crawford now is dropping his legislation and his push for the
appropriations bill amendment.

“I think they [south Florida’s U.S. representatives] recognize we’re not
doing it [agreeing to work together on a solution] to validate the
Castro regime or to empower or endorse the president’s [Barack Obama’s]
actions, but that we instead are doing this on behalf of United States
agriculture producers,” Crawford said. “With the low commodity prices
we’ve had the last three years, we are looking at every market we can find.”

Ward said he understood the reasoning for dropping the amendment.
Offering legislation at a different time will allow lawmakers to come up
with a more permanent fix in dealing with Cuba. Hearing that Crawford
was lining up support from others in Congress is encouraging, Ward said.

“I think it’s a matter of time for those restrictions and the embargo to
be lifted,” Ward said. “How long it will take, I’m not sure. But it
sounds like Congressman Crawford has pretty strong commitments from
House leadership to be able to move that forward for a long-term solution.”

Ward recently made his second trip to Cuba, joining a delegation led by
members of the Arkansas Rice Federation. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Preston
and Ward were part of a group of more than 40 who visited Cuba in September.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries were restored in 2015.
Trade restrictions remain, but Ward said the U.S. influence there is
already evident.

“I was really amazed to see the difference in nine months. There are a
lot more tourists, a lot more Americans there,” he said. “There are
construction projects, more traffic. It’s changing. The American dollar,
the American influence is already having an effect. Cuba is allowing
more free-market, private-industry projects as opposed to everything
being state-run. It’s a very interesting and fascinating process.”

Business on 07/08/2016

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