WASHINGTON — Farm state lawmakers and agricultural groups are ramping up efforts to lift the trade embargo against Cuba in the wake of President Barack Obama’s decision to normalize diplomatic ties with Havana.
More than 25 food and agricultural interests including Cargill, the National Chicken Council and the National Turkey Federation on Thursday will announce a coalition aimed at pressing Congress to scrap the embargo and open up the island to increased investment with the United States.
Among the attendees at the rollout of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba are Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Obama last month announced that the U.S. will open an embassy in Cuba for the first time in 53 years, and his administration would ease some travel and trade restrictions.
Vilsack said last month that Obama’s decision will remove technical barriers between U.S. and Cuban companies and create a “more efficient, less burdensome opportunity for Cuba to buy U.S. agricultural products.”
But the presidential executive action does not affect the congressional-imposed economic embargo against Cuba, which was tightened in 1996 and imposes significant restrictions on companies seeking to do business there.
Past efforts to ease trade and travel restrictions for U.S. farmers and ranchers have languished in Congress, but backers believe momentum could turn with Obama’s move.
“We know the president took it about as far as he could legally, but he’s opened the doors to a deeper conversation on the embargo,” said the group’s vice chairman, Paul Johnson. He said the group – formed last May and now looking for momentum in Congress – will argue that opening ties would boost U.S. companies, as well as help Cubans get more goods.
“If you improve trade with the United States, you’re going to create more opportunities,” Johnson said.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who will attend the coalition’s rollout, said lifting unilateral trade and travel restrictions would benefit farmers and ranchers in his state. He notes a 2010 Texas A&M University study that estimated easing restrictions and lifting the travel ban could result in $365 million in additional sales of U.S. agricultural commodities, boost the U.S. economy by $1.1 billion and creating 6,000 new jobs.
“Cuba imports the vast majority of its food, so when we don’t sell agriculture products to Cuba, somebody else does,” said Moran.
Though the U.S. has allowed agricultural exports to Cuba since 2000, exporters say financing restrictions, including a requirement that Cuba pay on delivery or purchase, curbs competition for U.S. products.
The push to lift the trade ban may be a tough sell in Congress, where several Republicans have vowed to challenge Obama’s overtures to Cuba. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said the U.S. should not revisit relations with the Castro regime until there is democracy there.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has vowed to block any potential U.S. ambassador to Cuba, said the coalition is only the latest of several failed attempts to end the embargo.
“Their interest is doing business in Cuba; my interest is the Cuban people,” Rubio said. He said it would be premature to lift the embargo before evidence of a democratic opening in Cuba.
He acknowledged that a number of his Republican colleagues want to end the embargo, but he said he doesn’t think it will happen.
“I don’t believe they have the votes to pass that in the Senate,” he said.
Mauricio Claver-Carone, a director with the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, which lobbies Congress to retain U.S. sanctions against Cuba, said similar efforts had failed when Democrats held both chambers.
And Claver-Carone called it a fallacy that increasing U.S. sales would benefit Cubans, noting that as the USDA has found, all U.S. agricultural exports are channeled through the Cuban government’s Alimport agency.
“How is that trade with the Cuban people?” Claver-Carone said.
Obama last month said he didn’t expect the embargo to end swiftly, telling reporters that “people are going to want to see how does this move forward before there’s any serious debate about whether or not we would make major shifts in the embargo.’
Among those expected at the press conference: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who has pushed to lift restrictions; Democratic Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.
The business rollout comes as Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said Wednesday that she will travel to Cuba next month to explore how farmers and other businesses in her state might benefit from opening Cuban markets to U.S. agriculture products.
She told reporters that she had planned to travel to Cuba before Obama’s announcement but feels “a sense of urgency now.” McCaskill said she backs lifting the embargo, saying it hasn’t worked for the Cuban people.
And she noted that lifting the embargo, “from a selfish standpoint, it’s terrific for Missouri agriculture.”
McCaskill said she plans to talk to the Department of Agriculture this week about the opportunities for American exports in Cuba, in preparation for her trip.
“I want to learn as much as I can about what barriers remain before I go to Cuba and which commodities are most likely to have success in Cuba,” she said.
The senator’s meetings during her visit next month will be set up by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, a nonprofit advocacy group that previously has paid for members of Congress to travel to Cuba, including Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo.
McCaskill, however, said she will pay for her trip herself.