WASHINGTON — In a solitary victory for opponents of U.S. policy toward Cuba, the House of Representatives passed an amendment Thursday that seeks to knock down hurdles to Cuban payments for U.S. agricultural exports to the island.
The amendment presented by Kansas Republican Rep. Jerry Moran reverses a Bush administration 2005 determination that Cuba must pay for its U.S. agricultural goods before they're shipped to the island, not upon their arrival as is customary in international trade transactions.
The initiative, which passed by a voice vote, still must clear the Senate, and President Bush reiterated that he'd veto any bill that eased sanctions on Cuba. But the amendment to a Treasury Department spending bill offers some hope to farm-state lawmakers eager to reverse a recent slide in Cuban purchases of U.S. agricultural products.
The victory was tempered because opponents of Cuba policy couldn't present any amendments that would have challenged Cuba travel restrictions for most U.S. citizens, as they've done since 1999. Amendment votes are virtually the only vehicles for proponents of more engagement with Havana to change U.S. policies, as standalone bills rarely make it past the committee level.
Opponents of the Cuba policy say they were prevented from presenting more amendments for procedural reasons, while Florida Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart said foes of Cuba restrictions got cold feet.
Last week, Diaz-Balart and his allies defeated an attempt to cut U.S. democracy-aid programs for Cuba.
Cuba has complained that the payment rule, plus restrictions on U.S. bank transactions with the island, makes U.S. agricultural goods more expensive. Though Havana has said its purchases of U.S. products should increase this year, U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba have plunged in recent months. In the first quarter of this year they totaled $65 million, down nearly a third from a year ago, according to data compiled by the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, an independent group that tracks bilateral trade.
Moran blamed the rule change for declining purchases of U.S. rice, wheat and other products. But others doubt this. In its May newsletter, the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council blamed several factors, including the emergence of other foreign suppliers, more economic support from Venezuela and the Cuban government cutting purchases as a way to pressure U.S. companies, lawmakers and officials to lobby harder to overturn the sanctions.