WASHINGTON, Nov. 18, 2015 - There’s no sign that congressional Republicans are anywhere close to agreeing to end the embargo on Cuba. But Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is telling the Cuban government that it should start doing the work necessary to get U.S. approval to import Cuban products, including conducting detailed risk analyses of potential pests and diseases.

Vilsack said he delivered that message to Cuban officials during his trip to Cuba last week with a group of U.S. lawmakers.

“That’s something we obviously require of every country and (trading) partner that we have. It takes a while, so we’re encouraging the Cubans to get started on that process now, so as Congress begins the process over time of considering what to do with the embargo, Cuba will be in a position … to more quickly export product into the U.S.,” Vilsack told reporters.

One area Cuban farmers could possibly find a U.S. market for: organic food. Cuban farmers have turned to organic farming methods out of necessity – they lack the synthetic chemicals used in the developed world – but in order to sell into the U.S. market they would have to prove that they could meet USDA’s organic standards, Vilsack said.

With a view to ramping up trade, Vilsack also wants to see USDA open a presence in Havana with representatives from the Foreign Agricultural Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. He gave no time frame for doing so, however, indicating that there are space constraints at the embassy as well as a questions about the funding.

Cuban officials pressed the U.S. delegation to ease the government’s restrictions on their purchases of U.S. food to make it easier to buy on credit. “There is the hope on the part of the Cubans that some of this could be done by executive fiat,” Vilsack said. “But the reality is that many of the restrictions that they are concerned about are the result of the (embargo) legislation.”

Exports of food and agricultural products to Cuba are down 38 percent so far this year, despite an increase in September over the same month in 2014, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. Through September, Cuban imports this year totaled $146.7 million, compared to $291 million for all of 2014. Frozen chicken accounted for $63 million in Cuban imports through September, followed by soybean oil cake at $39 million.

The commodities likely to be most in demand if the embargo is lifted include corn, rice, soybeans, wheat, pork and poultry, according to Vilsack.


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