Midwestern lawmakers made a new push Tuesday for legislation that would ease U.S. travel to Cuba and remove measures that the Bush administration put in place to make it harder to export U.S. agricultural products to Cuba.
House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., are leading the effort to get the legislation on the floor, arguing it has strong chances of succeeding once it is out of committee.
The House Agriculture Committee passed Peterson’s Cuba bill this summer, but the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which also has jurisdiction, has not acted. The Senate has not advanced the companion bill that was introduced by Klobuchar and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.
Advocates for easing relations with Cuba say there are better chances of passage now, after Cuba announced this summer that it would release political prisoners.
At a news conference with the National Farmers Union Tuesday, Klobuchar said the bill is simple to implement because it would end the requirement that Cubans used a bank in a third country to process payment. It would also end the ban on U.S. travel to Cuba.
Peterson urged NFU members to lobby lawmakers on the House Foreign Affairs Committee to pass the measure. Peterson said that House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman needs only a few more votes but will not hold a markup unless he has the votes to pass it.
“There is a lot of money spread around on the other side of this issue,” Peterson said, referring to campaign donations from groups that oppose closer relations with Cuba unless the government changes.
A Berman aide did not return a call seeking information on plans for a markup.
NFU President Roger Johnson said his members would make the Cuba bill a lobbying priority during their visit to Washington because U.S. sales to Cuba have slipped. Johnson said the tougher financing rules the Bush administration put in place have discouraged sales because they raise the Cuban government’s transaction costs. Although Congress and the Obama administration have lifted some of the Bush-era provisions that make payment methods more complicated, Johnson said that the bill would provide certainty. He called the current situation “a self-imposed embargo on sales.”
According to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba for January to May were $182 million compared with $278 million in the same period in 2009, a decrease of about 35 percent.
But John Kavulich, the senior policy adviser for the council, said the Bush-era finance restrictions were not to blame. He attributed the decrease to Cuba’s economic problems; its lack of foreign currency; and its growing relationship with other trading partners such as China, Brazil, Argentina, Vietnam, Mexico, Canada, Russia and Iran.