Array of Groups Pushes Closer Ties to Cuba

Posted March 10, 2009 at 6:30pm

For the past eight years, the coalition of agricultural groups seeking to ease U.S. trade policy toward Cuba felt like they were “continually running into a brick wall,— as one participant described it.

Today, with new leadership in Washington, D.C., and public opinion shifting in their favor, that coalition, joined by a growing number of business and travel lobbies, have a renewed sense of optimism, and are preparing to send their troops into legislative battle.

Four decades of non-engagement with Cuba eased slightly with the enactment under President Bill Clinton of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, which allowed for the sale of food and medicine to Cuba on a cash basis.

By 2005, the Treasury Department, under President George W. Bush, effectively blocked that legislation by implementing the cash-payment-in-advance provision that required payment from Cuba be received in the United States before the products could be shipped. The effect was dramatic.

“In 2004, 180,000 metric tons of rice were exported to Cuba,— said Reece Langley, vice president of government affairs at the USA Rice Federation. “By 2008, that number was about 13,000 tons.—

Expanding the U.S. hard-line approach toward Cuba, Bush threatened to veto any Congressional action that would have eased relations with the island government.

Those groups arguing for a re-evaluation of U.S. policy toward Cuba claim a significant financial stake in the outcome of the debate. The value of U.S. agricultural, fish and forestry products sold to Cuba totaled $901.6 million in 2008, and the U.S. International Trade Commission estimates that U.S. agricultural sales alone would double if current trade restrictions were lifted. A 2002 report from the Freedom to Travel Campaign predicted that an end to the travel ban could increase U.S. economic output by more than $1 billion and could create tens of thousands of new jobs in the U.S. tourism industry.

Now, with a new administration that has called for greater engagement with Cuba and pledged to remove the restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba, along with public polls showing for the first time that a majority of Cuban Americans oppose continuing the U.S. economic embargo, industries with a stake in opening trade and travel relations are again seeing a glimmer of hope.

“This is a new day in terms of Cuba policy,— said Christopher Wenk, senior director for international policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “We see an opportunity to engage the administration and Congress and bring new stakeholders into the debate.—

The business community made the first move, delivering a letter in December to then-President-elect Barack Obama from 12 leading trade associations, including the chamber, the National Foreign Trade Council, Business Roundtable and the Grocery Manufacturers Association, emphasizing their support for “the complete removal of all trade and travel restrictions on Cuba.—

That action was quickly followed by a letter from 21 agriculture associations to Obama in January requesting “immediate and full change with regard to U.S. policy— toward Cuba.

“We have always had a core group of 25-30 agriculture groups working this issue,— Langley said. “Now we are seeing not only renewed interest among our members, but also opportunities for collaboration from the travel and business lobbies.—

Absent a veto threat from Obama, the House approved three Cuba-related provisions in the $410 billion omnibus spending bill it passed last month. The provisions, inserted by Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), would ease restrictions on travel by U.S. citizens with relatives in Cuba, change licensing procedures for travel for the sale of agricultural and medical goods to Cuba and ease the cash-payment-in-advance provision enacted by the Bush administration.

But in a sign that advocates for normalizing relations with Cuba do not have an easy road ahead, the spending bill quickly stalled in the Senate amid strong opposition to the Cuba-related provisions from Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who represent large Cuban-American constituencies and have long opposed efforts to ease relations with Cuba (Martinez was born in Cuba and Menendez is of Cuban descent).

The Treasury Department last week reached out to the Senators to suggest that, should the cash-payment-in-advance provision pass, “the White House intends to reissue a regulation that will be very similar, requiring cash be paid before it goes.—

“From our perspective, the provisions in the omnibus bill are more a signal than a fix,— said Chris Garza, director of governmental relations with the American Farm Bureau Federation. “What the omnibus bill does is send a message to Treasury and the administration that there is support for easing the restrictions on Cuba and that Congress intends to take action.—

Sources familiar with the issue both inside and outside Congress warn that, despite the optimism, any change in Cuban policy will be a hard fight given the political divide in Congress and the number of issues currently filling the administration’s agenda.

Nonetheless, groups that have been waiting for this day for more than a decade are looking ahead.

“We’re waiting to hear from the administration and to see how Congress resolves the omnibus,— Garza said. “This is not yet a full-court press. We haven’t pulled all the guns out.—