WASHINGTON, Feb. 18, 2016 – As agricultural exporters look to the possibility of a new market in Cuba, the Obama administration is gearing up for a presidential trip to the Communist-run country next month.

In a press briefing at the White House, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes said President Barack Obama will try to further advance the U.S.-Cuba relationship during his visit.

“We see (the trip) as a means of pushing forward this normalization process,” Rhodes said, adding that the trip would be about “trying to achieve a greater opening between the United States and Cuba commercially but also supporting and advancing the values that we care about.”

Obama’s visit will be the first to Cuba by a sitting president since 1928 when Calvin Coolidge made the trip. Rhodes pointed out that Coolidge – actually, the only sitting president to visit Cuba – did so in a battleship.

Rhodes said Obama will meet with Cuban President Raul Castro – but not his older brother Fidel – as well as Cuban dissidents. He said that Cuba has made progress since Obama’s 2014 announced intention to normalize relations, but the administration wants to see more.

“We, of course, have significant differences with Cuba on issues related to human rights,” Rhodes said. “They took some steps… but we’d like, of course, to see more respect for the basic, fundamental rights of the Cuban people.” 

When mentioning some of the economic progress in the U.S.-Cuba relationship, Rhodes specifically pointed to Cleber LLC, an Alabama company that was recently authorized by the administration to build a factory in Cuba making tractors for small farms. Cleber is the first manufacturer green-lighted to set up shop in Cuba.

Many agricultural interests see Cuba as a prime target for expanded trade. With a population of more than 11 million people, the country lies just 90 miles off the Florida coast, making it a viable outlet for low-cost shipping of export goods.

The Agriculture Department’s fiscal 2017 budget includes funding to open a Foreign Agricultural Service office in Cuba that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says is needed to prepare the way for an end to the U.S. embargo.

Vilsack told the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee last week that trade with Cuba is important to the long-term health of the U.S. farm economy.

“The opportunity for us to have individuals in Cuba to set the stage for resumption of trade is critically important because there are a number of preliminary matters that have to be addressed before trade can be reopened,” Vilsack told the panel. “Before the embargo is lifted, it would be helpful in my view to deal with the technical aspects of a resumed trade relationship.

“This is a market that the American agriculture should dominate. It currently does not for many reasons. But one of the reasons is that we simply do not have any one there promoting American agriculture, and, as you know, the embargo makes it more difficult for us to use the promotional resources that are available for other countries and trade relationships.”

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More than 100 national and state agricultural corporations and organizations have joined forces to create the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, whose mission statement says they believe that “improvement of agricultural trade between the U.S. and Cuba is the foundation for building successful and enduring relations between both countries.” Agricultural heavy hitters like the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union, ADM and Cargill are all members of the USACC.

Agribusiness interests continue to explore new opportunities on the island. An agricultural trade group from Iowa, including representatives of several companies as well as the Iowa Farm Bureau, Iowa Corn Growers Association and the state agriculture department, flew to Cuba on Thursday.

However, many on Capitol Hill are hesitant to lift the trade embargo to Cuba under the leadership of the Castro family. Some lawmakers have been hesitant to throw their weight behind the proposal due to human rights issues and some financial considerations. Cuba has also become a hot-button issue on the campaign trail, where many of the Republican candidates, particularly senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, have spoken critically of the proposal.

First lady Michelle Obama will travel with the president. Immediately following the trip to Cuba, the Obamas will travel to Argentina. Rhodes said that under new President Mauricio Macri, the White House expects Argentina to be “a closer partner on a range of issues.”

(Phil Brasher contributed to this story.)


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