WASHINGTON -- A congressman from northeast Arkansas will reintroduce legislation to ease trade restrictions with Cuba, and says he's hopeful that barriers to agricultural sales will be addressed early in 2017.
But there's plenty of uncertainty after the Nov. 8 presidential election and the Nov. 25 death of Fidel Castro, the 90-year-old former Cuban president.
It's unclear whether President-elect Donald Trump would be willing to support the bill, which is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, a Republican from Jonesboro.
The federal government currently bars farmers from extending credit to Cuban purchasers. As a result, Cubans must provide "cash in advance" whenever they purchase U.S. agricultural products. Crawford's legislation would allow credit to be extended, a change favored by many of the state's farm groups.
[INTERACTIVE: Cuba-U.S. relations]
H.R. 3687, the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, also would have allowed Americans to invest in Cuban agricultural businesses that are not controlled by the government there.
Arkansas produces roughly half of the nation's rice. The state, along with Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina, also is one of the largest poultry producers.
Chicken and rice are dietary staples in Cuba, population 11.3 million, and Natural State farmers are eager to do business there.
Crawford's bill had 48 co-sponsors, including U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Hot Springs Republican. But it encountered fierce opposition, particularly from the Cuban-American community.
"There were a whole lot of folks that just wanted to make sure Fidel Castro was dead before they considered anything," Crawford said.
Now that the Cuban revolutionary leader is gone, it may be easier for the legislation to advance, he said.
"We're not trying to do anything that would empower the regime," Crawford said.
But America shouldn't surrender the Cuban market to communist competitors from China and elsewhere, Crawford said.
"We can play a positive role there, fill that void, give them a cheaper, safer more readily available food supply or we can continue to view this through the lens of the Cold War and allow them to continue down that communist road that doesn't work for anybody," he said.
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Before the rise of Castro, the U.S. was a major supplier of rice to Cuba. But the trade ended with the implementation of an economic embargo by the United States in the early 1960s.
Restrictions on the sale of certain agricultural products were eased during the Clinton administration and by 2004 U.S. rice sales reached $64 million. The exports ended, however, after the U.S. government barred farmers from extending credit to Cuban purchasers.
Over the past two years, President Barack Obama has taken steps to normalize relations between the United States and its communist neighbor, opening an embassy in Havana, adding daily flights, removing barriers to travel and allowing increased imports of Cuban cigars and rum.
The prohibition on agriculture credit, however, remains.
Despite the thaw, critics say the Cuban regime has done little to improve human rights or to allow political dissent.
Castro's demise hasn't altered conditions on the island, they say.
"Fidel Castro may be dead, but the regime is still well alive," said U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, a Republican from Rogers who has opposed the farm credit legislation. "I've got some very serious concerns about what we do that serves to funnel more money into the hands of what I believe is a very corrupt ... and oppressive regime."
U.S. Rep. French Hill said there's no evidence that Cuba is embracing free enterprise or freedom of speech, assembly and religion now that Castro's brother, Raul Castro, is at the helm.
In fact, conditions may be worsening, he said.
"We clearly want our farm goods to get to Cuba. It's a small but close market to us," the Little Rock Republican said. "But the conditions have to be right for that to happen in Cuba."
Trump has also been critical of efforts to normalize relations with Cuba and is threatening to reverse course once he takes office.
"If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate the deal," Trump tweeted in late November.
Westerman isn't sure what to expect once the new administration arrives.
"I don't know how willing the Trump administration will be to deal with Cuba on trade," he said. "The fact that Fidel Castro's dead now, I think makes it a little more palatable, but I haven't seen them make any big changes in the government down there yet. Maybe trade is a way to spur those changes on."
Westerman said he continues to support efforts to facilitate the sale of farm products.
"I hate to use food as a negotiating tool anywhere. I think that's been a foreign policy mistake in the past. When we had the grain embargo with Russia, the only people that were hurt out of that were American farmers," he said.
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, who has co-sponsored legislation to ease trade restrictions with Cuba, said he remains hopeful that barriers to agricultural sales can be removed in 2017.
"We've heard some rhetoric, but we don't really know how" the Trump administration will react to Cuba, Boozman said.
The Rogers Republican said the U.S. should have consistent trade policies, noting that the U.S. trades freely with most other non-Democratic regimes.
"We trade with Saudi Arabia, we trade with Vietnam. We trade with everybody, I think probably, except for the North Koreans, so there's no reason that we shouldn't start moving in that direction," he said.
Improved trade relations with Cuba "would be good for America, good for Arkansas," he added.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson favors allowing farmers to extend credit to Cuban buyers, but says legislation allowing the change may be "on a slower path over the next six months than the trajectory we were on before."
"The death of Fidel Castro significantly changed the environment. ... The United States, in my judgment, is waiting for a signal of greater openness and a willingness to change," he said.
If that message is transmitted, trade between the countries will likely accelerate, he added.
Members of the Engage Cuba Coalition's Arkansas State Council, which promotes U.S-Cuba trade, are hopeful closer ties will develop.
Ben Noble, executive director of the Arkansas Rice Federation, said access to the Cuban market will be a priority in 2017.
"If ever there was a time for full engagement with Cuba, it is today," he said.
Another member, Newport farmer Derek Haigwood, agrees.
"I do grow rice, and, oh, it would just be a wonderful thing if we could open up that market," he said.
If Arkansas farmers make inroads in Cuba, "it's just something that would lift this economy up," he added.
A Section on 01/02/2017