Lawmakers yet to be sold on increased exports to Cuba

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, Sept. 9, 2015 - Some House members aren't sold on the idea of increased agricultural trade with Cuba, saying it wouldn't do anything to relieve human rights abuses in the communist country.

At a Wednesday hearing of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, there wasn't much disagreement that there is potential in the Cuban market, but some lawmakers expressed skepticism about benefits beyond a boost in exports.

Lets Talk Food

Among them was Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who is not a member of the subcommittee. Ros-Lehtinen, the first Cuban-American elected to Congress, said the U.S. should be leery of current agricultural export figures and look at a potentially bigger political picture.

“The Castro regime knows and understands the U.S. very well, and it is purposely, I believe, dropping the amount of sales right now of U.S. agricultural products so that the ag industry falls for this ruse and advocates for loosening of sanctions and more concessions to the Castro regime,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Loosening sanctions, she said, will not help the Cuban people, she said. “It will only help fill the coffers of the monopolies that have been created by the regime.”

Congress has allowed sales of certain agricultural and medical products to Cuba since 2000. Farm sales reached almost $700 million in 2008, but in 2014 totaled just $286 million, mostly poultry meat, soy products and corn and feed.

Subcommittee member Joe Wilson, R-S.C., said there is already evidence from other countries justifying the concerns of skeptics.

“It's hard to believe the increased trade will help the Cuban people. The evidence is clear: The Castro regime had 30 years of subsidized trade with the Soviet Union and billions of dollars in European investment, yet none of the profits made its way to the Cuban people,” Wilson said. “What makes us think that adding U.S. to the equation would be different except to prop up a corrupt dictatorship?”

Skepticism over the intentions of the Castro regime is not new, but it has the potential to derail the Obama administration's plan to lift sanctions against the Caribbean country. Agricultural organizations have been pushing for increased trade with Cuba since December, when President Obama announced his intentions to lift the 50-year-old trade embargo established by President John F. Kennedy.

Currently, agriculture goods sold to Cuba must be paid for fully in advance in cash and the transaction must be handled by a state-owned entity.  Subcommittee Chairman Ted Poe, R-Texas, said he didn't understand why trade would be allowed, but be so restricted.  

“This half-in, half-out trade environment doesn't make much sense to me,” Poe said in his opening statement. He argued U.S. exporters should be allowed to sell products on credit, with the understanding that the U.S. government won't bail them out.

Poe pointed out the rice industry, which is prevalent in his district, is one of many commodities that could benefit from increased trade with Cuba. But reforms are needed to maximize that opportunity, he said.

“It's clear our current policy when it comes to agriculture exports to Cuba is not working,” Poe said, pointing out that Cuba, a nation of 11 million people just 90 miles off the Florida coast,  is importing 70 percent of its food.

“By law, our farmers have the freedom to export to Cuba but in practice, the government seems to get in the way.”

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