Vilsack, Pritzker to join Obama's Cuba trip

By Bill Tomson

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WASHINGTON, March 11, 2016 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker announced Friday that they will be joining President Barack Obama on his trip to Cuba this month.

"Throughout history, agriculture has served as a bridge to foster cooperation, and I have no doubt that agriculture will continue to play a powerful role as we expand our relationship with the Cuban people in the coming years," Vilsack said in a statement.

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The U.S. exports hundreds of millions of dollars of farm commodities to Cuba, but agriculture and trade officials say that U.S. sales have waned in recent years because of competition from countries like Vietnam, Thailand, Argentina and Brazil.

Because the U.S. embargo is still in place, all sales of agricultural products must still be made in cash, often with the aid of third-party financing. That puts the U.S. at a sharp disadvantage to other nations that offer credit.

That's a situation that lawmakers like Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., are trying to change with legislation. She introduced a bill in April that would allow U.S. exporters to finance sales of agricultural commodities to Cuba.


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Heitkamp, who will also travel with Obama this month to Cuba, said the trip “will be a unique opportunity to keep up the fight for North Dakota producers, who rely on exports for their bottom line and know well that Cuba is a natural market for our state's crops.”

Secretary of State John Kerry and Maria Contreras-Sweet, the administrator of the Small Business Administration, will also be on the trip.

Obama will meet with Cuban President Raul Castro and “engage with members of civil society, entrepreneurs and Cubans from different walks of life” during the trip, according to a Commerce statement.

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