Kansas’ two Republican senators say they’re in favor of lifting the embargo on Cuba to increase the sale of U.S. wheat and other agricultural products to the communist state – and they’re open to working with the administration of President Barack Obama to make it happen.
The senators’ position could put them in conflict with some of their GOP colleagues in the Senate – chief among them Cuban-American Marco Rubio of Florida – who have said they will fight Obama’s recent decision to begin normalizing relations with Cuba.
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran already has asked the U.S. Treasury Department to loosen restrictions on exporting wheat to Cuba, something that could happen through rule-making.
U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, meanwhile, indicated on Monday that he’d be willing to lead discussions with the White House to lift the embargo through legislation.
“I would like to sell Cuba wheat products and for that matter all sorts of agriculture products,” Roberts said.
Roberts is a senior member of the Senate Committee on Finance, which oversees trade matters. He’s also in line to become the next chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee in January, when Republicans take over Congress.
Roberts told reporters on Monday that he’d invite the president to sit down with him and Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.
“The president does these kinds of things that are very major on his own,” Roberts said. “I just think if we could lift the embargo and go step by step it would be a better process.”
Roberts is skeptical that Obama can unilaterally normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba as long as the Castro brothers remain in control. But he said the Castro brothers have used the embargo to their public relations advantage for a long time, and it’s past time for the failed policy to end.
“Let’s talk about this and see how it could be done without giving your seal of approval to Communism,” he said.
Farmers in Kansas and elsewhere in the United States stand to cash in if Cuba opens its markets to agriculture imports.
Cubans, who import more than 80 percent of their food, bought $150 million worth of wheat from the European Union last year, Moran said in a statement on Monday.
The United States exported nearly $368 million in agriculture and related exports to Cuba in 2010, according to a Texas A&M study, though law and federal policy limit those exports.
“It simply does not make sense to continue policies and regulations blocking U.S. farmers from this market only for it to be filled by our competitors,” Moran said.
Citing a 2010 Texas A&M study, Moran estimated that easing restrictions on Cuba and lifting the travel ban could result in $365 million in additional sales of U.S. agricultural products and boost the U.S. economy by $1.1 billion.
Beyond the economic benefits, he said, easing trade and travel to Cuba could effectively help open up Cuba “through the exchange of commodities and ideas.”
“I have often said, in Kansas we will try anything once – sometimes twice or even three times,” Moran said. “However, if we have been trying something for over five decades and it has yet to work, it is time to change direction. It is time to change our Cuba policies. It is time for U.S. farmers and ranchers to truly have market access to Cuba’s 11 million consumers.”
Moran and Roberts have long supported opening trade with Cuba. They’ve introduced a series of amendments and bills over the years in both the House and Senate to remove trade barriers.
Opening trade with Cuba is supported by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Association of Wheat Growers and the National Farmers Union, among other industry groups.