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WASHINGTON -- U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said he wants to remove barriers to trade with Cuba, telling a House committee this week: "If our folks grow it, I want to sell it."

Current U.S. law prevents American farmers from extending credit to Cuban purchasers. U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, a Jonesboro Republican who represents much of eastern Arkansas, has introduced legislation that would remove the restrictions on private loans.

This week, Crawford lobbied for the bill on Capitol Hill and at the White House.

During a meeting of the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday, Crawford asked Perdue to back H.R. 525, the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act.

"I think that's something I would be supportive of if folks around the world need private credit to buy our products, and I'm all for that," Perdue told Crawford and the other committee members. "I probably would have some personal concern if we were doing public credit to the nation of Cuba."

Crawford, who represents the nation's top rice-producing district, said he shared that view. "That is strictly a private transaction with no taxpayer public backstop and I think that is important to note," he replied.

Supporters of U.S.-Cuban trade welcomed the statement from a member of President Donald Trump's cabinet.

One day later, Crawford and three of H.R. 525's co-sponsors met with White House officials who are helping to craft the Trump administration's Cuba policy.

"It was a high-level meeting," Crawford said in an interview Friday, calling it a "very positive" discussion.

"I can't speak for the administration, but I get the sense that there is a feeling there that this vestige of the Cold War needs to go away and we need to play an active role in shaping the future of Cuba," he said.

Prior to the Cuban revolution, the U.S. was a major supplier of rice to the island. But the trade ended after the rise of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and the nation's embrace of communism.

With a U.S. trade embargo in place, Havana turned to other nations for rice imports.

Restrictions on the sale of medication and agricultural products were rolled back in 2000, and by 2004 U.S. rice sales had climbed to $64 million. The exports ended, however, after the U.S. government barred farmers from extending credit to Cuban purchasers.

Since fiscal 2009, Cuba has opted not to buy any U.S. rice. Most of its rice imports are from Vietnam and Brazil.

The country is buying U.S. chicken, however. The U.S. is "the lead supplier" of poultry -- mostly frozen chicken leg quarters -- according to the United States International Trade Commission. Easing the restrictions could lead to modest growth for U.S. chicken exports, the agency said.

If the trade barriers on rice are removed, the two states that would benefit most are Arkansas and Louisiana, the trade commission stated in its March 2016 analysis.

After more than a half-century of economic sanctions, it's clear that the economic embargo isn't working, Crawford said.

"I think it's just time to take a different look, take a different approach," he said.

Crawford said he's hopeful that his legislation, which has 38 co-sponsors, will advance.

It helps to have Perdue's backing, Crawford said.

"He's an influential voice in the Cabinet so I think we're very well positioned to get the kind of support we need from the administration to move forward," he said.

Similar legislation, on the Senate side, has the backing of Arkansas' U.S. Sen. John Boozman.

The Republican from Rogers is an original co-sponsor of the Agricultural Export Expansion Act of 2017, which also would allow U.S. businesses to extend credit to Cuban purchasers of agricultural commodities.

James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, said Perdue's statements give Crawford's bill "a big boost" and "should make this move a lot quicker through Congress.

"We're sort of at a breakthrough moment for this legislation," he said.

Speaking to the Economic Equality Caucus Conference in Washington on Thursday, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said supporters of trade with Cuba appear to have the momentum.

Although he opposes efforts to relax the restrictions, "You are winning the argument and I'm losing it and I'm losing it gracefully," he told the audience. "I think I see the handwriting on the wall."

Business on 05/20/2017

Print Headline: Private credit for Cuba on table

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