Vilsack, lawmakers urge end to Cuban trade embargo

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 10, 2016 - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and a bipartisan group of lawmakers on Wednesday marked the first anniversary of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba by urging the group's members - including some of the country's leading ag groups and companies - to keep the pressure on Congress to ease trade restrictions with the island nation.

Vilsack said the Cuban market - with 11 million people just 90 miles off the Florida coast - offers tremendous opportunities for U.S. farmers and ranchers as well as producers of farm machinery and other goods but those opportunities are being hampered by a half-century old trade embargo that has long outlived its purpose.

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“We need Congress to act to lift the embargo and to do it now,” Vilsack said during an event at the National Press Club in Washington. “Right now we are at a disadvantage.”

Devry Boughner Vorwerk, the Cargill executive who chairs USACC, kicked the event off by reviewing the progress the group had made in the last year. She noted that when USACC was founded there were about 25 member organizations. Now there are more than 100, she said, including ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Smithfield Foods as well as the American Farm Bureau Federation and a host of state bureaus and commodity groups. She also pointed to the reestablishment of a U.S. Embassy in Havana in July.

“Now, only a year on, we have seen a series of moves of significant action by the administration to achieve that objective (ending the embargo),” she said. “But there is more to be done, and all roads lead to Congress.”

A number of lawmakers attended the event to pledge their support. They included Democratic Senators Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; Republican Congressmen Rick Crawford of Arkansas, Ted Poe of Texas, Ralph Abraham of Louisiana, and Tom Emmer of Minnesota; and Democrats Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Jim McGovern of Massachusetts. 

Most of the lawmakers seemed to agree that ending the embargo would probably not happen during 2016, with a short legislative calendar and a presidential election coming in November. But they said coalition members and the public should be pushing for incremental changes, including changes to financial regulations that require Cubans to pay cash for U.S. products.

McGovern, however, called for a more aggressive approach to the lobbying effort in Congress, arguing that there is now a consensus of Americans - including a majority of Cuban Americans - who want the embargo to end, but are being frustrated by lawmakers “embracing an old, misguided Cold War philosophy.”

He said the USACC members needs to be “a little tough” and let these lawmakers know that if they aren't backing the coalition, “then we need to rethink how much we need to be with you.”

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“You're on the side of the angels on this issue,” he told the audience. “You're on the right side of history.”

In his address, Vilsack also called on Congress to support President Obama's budget request to fund a USDA presence in Havana.

“We need people down there to promote American products,” Vilsack said. “We don't have that presence as we do in other countries” and it's “important to have people there.” In the interim, he said he was looking at ways to possibly use checkoff dollars from different commodity groups to further that promotional effort.

(This story was updated on Feb. 11)

 

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