WASHINGTON, April 22, 2015 – Obama administration officials are telling lawmakers they’ve done as much as they can without action by Congress to make it easier to trade with Cuba. They told the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday that the 15-year-old Trade Sanctions Reform and Enhancement Act bars allowing banks and companies to extend credit to Cuba and prohibits the use of federal trade programs to facilitate sales.
“The lack of ability to use these (federal trade promotion) programs as well as our in ability to extend credit is the main issue we have lost our market share (in Cuba) since 2008,” said Michael Scuse, USDA’s under secretary for farm and foreign agricultural services.
Scuse says the prohibition on using government funding for trade shows and other promotional efforts in Cuba extends to use of federal checkoff dollars, a point disputed by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. Heitkamp, a former state attorney general, argues that the checkoff programs should be exempt from the prohibition since the money is collected from producers. She told Scuse “the current law is being broadly interpreted” and urged the department to reconsider its policy.
Those issues aside, there’s also concern among lawmakers about Cuba’s insistence on channeling all imports of U.S. food through the government-owned Alimport, a restriction it doesn’t put on Canada and other suppliers. The committee’s chairman, Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and other members say Alimport’s control of agricultural trade has severely limited who in Cuba can import U.S. food.
John Smith, acting director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said the administration would be negotiating to allow sales that bypass Alimport.
Cuban purchases of U.S. food and agricultural products, which peaked at $710 million in 2008, have been on a sharp decline since then and totaled just $38 million for January and February, down from $78.5 million during the first two months of 2014, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
“This is not an issue that we are going to be able to fix overnight. It will take efforts in addition to bills in Congress to truly normalize trade with Cuba,” said Roberts.
“We have to take a realistic approach and work out a step-by-step plan towards lifting the embargo,” Roberts said. “This is a goal that should include Congress.”
Committee member Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is sponsoring a bill (S 491) to lift the embargo, but it has little chance to become law during this Congress. The bill has six cosponsors, including Republicans Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
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