WASHINGTON -- Several lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford of Jonesboro, told the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba on Wednesday that they'll work to pass legislation removing barriers to trade with Havana.
But election-year politics are likely to delay any sweeping changes, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., told the group.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Cuban Ambassador to the United States Jose Ramon Cabanas and at least eight federal legislators spoke at the meeting, which included comments by Arkansas Rice Federation Executive Director Ben Noble.
The gathering was sponsored by a number of agriculture groups, including the USA Rice Federation, the U.S. Rice Producers Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation, all of which are members of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, which seeks to improve agricultural trade between the two nations.
U.S.-Cuba trade boosters said they're hopeful they can ease trade restrictions, though they disagreed about the timetable.
"Next Congress will be the Congress that probably will very seriously look at lifting the embargo, but it won't happen without ... people like you who can tell the story, who can talk about new wealth creation, talk about the importance of exports, especially in agriculture," Heitkamp said.
U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., encouraged the audience to work to pass legislation this year, arguing that a solid majority of Americans -- and the White House -- are ready to scrap the trade restrictions.
"I believe that this year is a year that we can make some progress. I don't want to wait until next year or the year after. God knows who the next president is going to be. We can't count on that. We can't wait on that," McGovern said.
Arkansas produces roughly half of America's rice crop and used to send shiploads of it to Cuba. But a decades-long economic embargo forced Havana to buy from other trading partners.
Currently, Americans can sell food and medicine to Cuba, but only if the purchaser pays cash prior to shipment.
After the meeting, Cabanas said he'd like to see Arkansas rice on Cuban shelves. "It's a good product. Let's see if we can import it under good conditions."
Crawford told the crowd that Arkansas would be glad to sell rice to Cuba, saying the state's farmers would provide a "much higher-quality product at a better price."
He touted a bill he has sponsored, H.R. 3687, which would allow American businesses to extend credit to nongovernmental Cuban businesses that purchase agricultural products.
Known as the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, it has 20 co-sponsors.
The embargo has "outlived its usefulness" and doesn't make sense in the post-Cold War era, Crawford said. "We trade with Russia. We fought a hot war with Vietnam, but we now trade with Vietnam. China has some of the most egregious human-rights violations on the planet, yet we find a way to trade with China. So who are we really punishing here? I think the answer is we're punishing ourselves. So if there's ever been a time to be able to take action, positively and productively, now is the time to be able to do that."
U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, a Texas Republican, agreed, saying the trade embargo hurts his state's rice growers and those who use its ports.
"It irritates me that ships leave the Gulf of Mexico, headed to places around the world and they go right by Cuba. They can't offload anything there, generally, and we need to change that," he said.
Greg Yielding, executive director for the Arkansas Rice Growers Association, and Harvey Howington, a rice farmer in Poinsett County, both attended Wednesday's conference and planned to lobby lawmakers on the issue.
Until recently, politicians were unwilling to change the status quo, fearing that a vote to lift the embargo would hurt their party's presidential nominee in a key state with a large Cuban-American population, Howington said.
"Nobody gets elected without carrying Florida. You didn't want to make all those Cuban expats mad," he said.
But support for the embargo has dropped, especially among younger Cuban-Americans, he said, making it possible "to actually embrace trade with Cuba now where it was kind of a poison pill before."
Business on 02/11/2016