WASHINGTON, Jan. 21, 2015 – The Cuban government is expressing interest in increasing purchases of U.S. agriculture commodities in the wake of President Barack Obama's moves to establish diplomatic relations and also wants to buy some farm equipment, says Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.
Stabenow, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, was among a delegation of congressional Democrats who visited Cuba over the weekend as a follow-up to the president's announcement that he would open an embassy in Havana and liberalize trade and travel restrictions.
“The financing issue is still one that is of concern to them, but there are steps we can take from within the cash model” to increase sales, she said. “We are looking for them to make decisions on the best way for our commodity groups to move forward."
She said the Cubans still must decide what commodities they want to buy. “They did not make specific commitments,” she said, but indicated interest in a range of foods, including milk, pork, beans, rice, potatoes and fruit. Cuba currently imports milk powder from New Zealand, she noted.
The Treasury Department took some actions last week to loosen financial restrictions on sales to Cuba, but the purchases still must be in cash. The new rules allow Cuba to make payments after the food is delivered, not before, and allow U.S. financial institutions to have direct relationships with Cuban banks.
The president’s plan also will allow sales of farm equipment to Cuba, and the officials indicated interest in buying tractors for the government-controlled cooperatives that farm most of Cuba’s land.
When the Cuban officials pressed the lawmakers to end the U.S. embargo, Stabenow told them that increasing their imports of American products would help opponents of the embargo make the case in Congress.
“They were very interested in knowing what will happen on the embargo and what the prospects were and would like very much to see the embargo lifted,” Stabenow said.
“I indicated to them that if we could show positive results of the president’s actions by creating trade deals … that would be a good sign in getting the votes to lift the embargo.”
It was the second visit to Cuba for Stabenow, and she said she will make a third trip to follow up on the specific opportunities for agricultural trade. She plans next time, for example, to meet with the ministry that handles purchases of imports. In the meantime, she said she will be talking to U.S. commodity groups and businesses about possible sales to Cuba.
She said she also will be encouraging American specialists in urban agriculture to attend an upcoming conference on the issue in Cuba.
The congressional delegation, which included Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, also met with 15 dissidents representing various organizations, a couple of whom expressed opposition to any U.S. moves that recognize the Castro government, she said. The organizations gave the lawmakers a list of dissidents still being held by the government.
A top State Department official arrived in Cuba Wednesday for talks on restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries. During Obama's State of the Union message Tuesday, he repeated his call for ending the embargo. “When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new,” he said.