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Guest: Time to open Cuban market

As a lifelong farmer, I’ve spent decades working together with my friends and neighbors on the problems we face throughout the agricultural community. From droughts to farm bills, we know the best way to handle a challenge is to deal with it directly.

That’s how we are — farmers will always “tell it to you straight.” It is time to be straight with President Obama about Cuba. For nearly 50 years, the Cold War, isolationist policies the United States has implemented toward Cuba in an attempt to coerce democracy, has not worked and it’s time for a change.

President Obama recently lifted travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban-American families to Cuba, a welcome change, but still only a first step in reversing a misguided policy that has hampered agricultural trade since 1962.

Our next action must be to lift the payment limits faced by farmers when trading with the Cuban market. While this action would not lift the trade embargo, its value would be immeasurable to not just the Cuban people, but to Mid-South farm families.

Recently, I introduced the Agricultural Export Facilitation Act with Republican Jerry Moran of Kansas. Together, we are building support for this bipartisan, common sense bill that would amend the law to allow for agricultural credit sales to purchasers in Cuba.

In addition, it would greatly expand the necessary business travel allowed to Cuba in connection with agriculture and medicine.

Currently, U.S. farmers are missing out on what would be a major source of revenue for our country. Prior to the embargo, Cuba was the largest export market for U.S. rice.

Limited trade resumed under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000. But when the Treasury Department mandated all payments to be received in advance of shipment, in cash, U.S. rice exports declined from 176,632 metric tons in 2004 to less than 13,000 metric tons in 2008. This restriction and other licensing requirements severely limit sales for rice producers.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates the U.S. embargo of Cuba costs the economy $1.2 billion a year in lost sales and exports. Lifting the payment restrictions will allow farm families to enter a vibrant, growing market in Cuba — one in which practically every other nation in Europe and the Western Hemisphere participates.

I have had the opportunity to visit Cuba on two separate occasions. On both trips, Cuba’s leaders expressed to me again and again their interest in purchasing products we have in abundance right here in the Mid-South: commodities like rice and poultry. These leaders know we are able to deliver high-quality products to them cheaper and faster.

By switching from European suppliers of food and grain to American sources, Cuba stands to save between 15 to 20 percent of its current import costs, which The New York Times estimates to be approximately one billion dollars.

While some would claim our current policy must be imposed because it is the best way to restore democracy and human rights to the island, I respectfully disagree. Food should never be used as a political tool. It is my steadfast belief striking down trade and travel barriers with Cuba will promote the ideals of personal freedom, representative democracy, and open-market capitalism to Cuba.

Also, easing restrictions will allow us to begin conversations with other nations who are anxious to see us treat Cuba fairly.

Although our country may not be ready to lift the embargo in its entirety, one of the most crucial incremental steps we could make would be to lift the payment limitations U.S. producers face when dealing with the Cuban market. By allowing Cuba to purchase goods on credit, it makes it easier and cheaper to purchase American agricultural products. Easing these outdated trade restrictions is a win-win for both of our countries.

Rep. Marion Berry of Gillett represents Arkansas’ 1st Congressional District and is a member of the House Appropriations and Budget committees.

TAGS: Legislative
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