Congress weighs easing of Cuba trade limits

McClatchy NewspapersApril 29, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's overtures to Cuba have enlivened the debate in Congress on boosting American travel and trade to the island, but Raul Castro on Wednesday decried the administration's opening salvo as "achieving only the minimum."

Speaking in Havana before a gathering of international ministers, the Cuban president said that "it is not Cuba that has to make gestures."

He called Obama's moves two weeks ago to lift travel and gift restrictions on Cuban Americans and ease restrictions on U.S. telecommunication firms "fine, positive, but only achieve the minimum. The embargo remains intact."

The State Department appeared unmoved by the criticism, countering that it's Cuba that needs to show some effort.

"We're interested in a dialogue with Cuba, but I think the international community wants to see some steps from Havana to see, to gauge how serious the government there is," said state department spokesman Robert Wood.

Regardless of Havana's reaction, Obama's moves have emboldened critics of current U.S. policy, who already had filed legislation to allow Americans to travel to Cuba.

Next up, a contingent of farm state senators is expected soon to introduce legislation aimed at boosting agricultural trade with the island.

A similar bill to ease trade and travel restrictions for U.S. farmers and ranchers languished in the last Congress, but backers believe momentum now is on their side.

"There's clearly a great deal of interest on the Hill," said Rosemarie Watkins, director of international policy for the American Farm Bureau, which considers increasing agricultural sales to Cuba "an important priority."

An aide to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said the Montana Democrat expects to introduce a bill to open trade and travel for U.S. farmers, ranchers and families.

"We can and should do more," Baucus said after the administration announced the travel and gift rollback. "We need to make it easier for America's farmers and ranchers to sell their high quality products, including Montana's world-class wheat and barley, to one of our closest markets."

Critics note the proposals are supported by many of the same longtime opponents of U.S. Cuba policy and they suggest the administration is more likely to wait for Cuba to respond to its initial overtures before endorsing further moves.

"The feeling I've been getting in Congress is, 'We've done something and now the regime has to show its good will'," said Mauricio Claver-Carone, a leading pro-embargo lobbyist. "Any media-created momentum in Cuba policy has been cut off by President Obama putting the onus on the regime."

The State Department on Wednesday reiterated support for the trade embargo in the wake of Castro's comments, with Wood noting that "we do have an embargo, and there is no plan at this point to lift that embargo. But we do want to do what we can to support the Cuban people."

Agricultural trade groups, however, argue that lifting the embargo would usher change in Cuba by boosting economic opportunity. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates U.S. exports to Cuba reached $718 million in 2008, with corn topping the list at $198 million, followed by meat, poultry and wheat. But the chamber complained earlier this week at a House hearing on trade with Cuba that cumbersome U.S. restrictions make it difficult for small- and medium-sized exporters to participate.

The regulations the industry wants changed include allowing Cuba to pay for goods by credit and ending a policy that requires Cuba to pay for products in advance. The chamber notes that U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba decreased by nearly 15 percent in the two years after the Bush administration required cash up front.

The change could help the United States — which is only 90 miles from Cuba — box out Vietnam and China, competitors for products like rice, said Kirby Jones, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association, which champions trade with Havana.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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