Lifting Cuban trade restrictions could mean millions for Minnesota agriculture, lawmakers say

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WASHINGTON – The latest effort to bridge the 90-mile gap from Key West to Cuba is being led here by a pair of Minnesota lawmakers who contend that easing restrictions on the island nation could mean millions for Minnesota’s agriculture industry.

“America’s current policies have failed to achieve their stated goal and instead they have hand-delivered an export market in our own backyard to the Brazilians, the Europeans and our other competitors around the world,” said Rep. Collin Peterson. “It’s time we ask ourselves why we have in place policies that simply do not work and that only harm U.S. interests.”

Peterson’s remarks came at the start of a House Agriculture Committee hearing he called to discuss his own legislation to lift the travel ban to Cuba and ease rules on agricultural exports to the island nation. Earlier today, Sen. Amy Klobuchar introduced a companion measure in the Senate. Both the House and Senate bills have Republican co-sponsors.

“The bill we have introduced would eliminate the requirement that our farmers have to go through a third country bank to do business in Cuba and would place agricultural exports to Cuba on the same terms for cash payment as other countries, requiring payment when the shipment changes hands,” Peterson said. “It would also make it easier for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, allowing American agricultural producers to more easily conduct business with Cuba and boosting demand for U.S. products in Cuba.”

Minnesota agricultural exports to Cuba more than doubled between 2005 and 2008, according to figures provided by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Currently, Cuba takes in $51.9 million in Minnesota agricultural products, most of it soybeans, corn, wheat and related products. State Agriculture Communications Director Michael Schommer said that figure is probably on the conservative side, given that the report doesn’t credit Minnesota for grains that originated in-state but were co-mingled into a shipment from another state.

U.S. exports currently provide about 30 percent of Cuba’s imported agricultural products, but a 2007 U.S. International Trade Commission report estimated that easing trade restrictions could see that number grow to between 50 and 67 percent.

“American famers can greatly benefit from access to new markets in Cuba at a time when our economy needs it most,” Klobuchar said in a statement announcing her companion bill. “This bill will create jobs by promoting U.S. agriculture exports. In addition, Cubans and Americans will be able to engage in open communication, an important step towards improving relations between our two nations.”

The issue is politically sensitive for a host of reasons, not least the conduct of the communist Cuban government under former president Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, the current president. It has been widely reported that Cuba continues to jail and beat dissidents in an effort to suppress any political opposition, and the exile community concentrated in south Florida continues to largely oppose normalizaing relations. Peterson was careful to point out that his legislation would not lift the general U.S. embargo on the country that has been in place since the 1960s.

“I do not think any of the members here or any of the witnesses at that table today are supporters of the Castro regime,” Peterson said as the Agriculture hearing began. “None of us support the Cuban government’s detainment of political prisoners. However, the policies we have in place today have done nothing to remove the regime or improve the situation for political prisoners.”

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