Trade, travel with Cuba the right policy, right now

It isn’t every day a coalition of more than 140 organizations including Human Rights Watch, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the American Farm Bureau Federation all agree on a bill before Congress. But, in the case of the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, H.R. 4645, these groups and many more agree this is the right policy at the right time for the people of Cuba and the United States.

For more than 50 years, the United States has maintained a failed policy that does nothing to help the Cuban people and has only hamstrung our own national interests. Now is the time for that to change.

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Earlier this year, Reps. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) joined me in introducing legislation to expand U.S. agricultural trade with Cuba and to allow U.S. citizens the right to travel freely to Cuba. This legislation has more than 70 co-sponsors and was approved by the House Agriculture Committee last month.

This bill is essential and timely because Cuba relies on agricultural imports for the majority of its food needs. Between 2000 and 2006, these imports almost doubled.

U.S. producers can reach Cuban ports in one day or less, compared to the more than 25 days it takes Brazil, whose exports to Cuba have nearly tripled since 2005, and European countries. Exports from Canada and New Zealand have each doubled. It is time we get out of our own way and boost the U.S. economy with new markets for the agricultural products we produce best.

A recent Texas A&M University study found we can export more than $350 million in additional commodities, creating more than 6,000 new jobs in the process.

Turning away these jobs is irresponsible in today’s economy. 

To be clear, H.R. 4645 does not end the embargo on Cuba; it only facilitates agricultural trade and opens the door for Americans to travel to Cuba. This bill maintains a cash-only policy and does not allow our banks to extend credit to Cuba. Additionally, payments would be made when products reach Cuban ports and the buyers confirm the cargo. The bill makes our agriculture trade policy toward Cuba more consistent with our practices toward other countries.

The bill’s travel provisions will enable producers, exporters and everyday Americans to travel to Cuba just as they do when traveling to any other nation.
The Texas A&M study found that agricultural exports to Cuba would be almost $100 million higher if the travel restrictions were lifted compared to only removing finance and trade restrictions. 

Opening travel will increase the overall economic impact for the entire economy. In 2009, a study by the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) estimated U.S. exports to Cuba will increase by as much as $500 million if restrictions on transactions and travel are lifted.

Opening travel helps the Cuban people. Americans traveling to Cuba can freely share news, ideas and information without the filter of state-controlled media.

This bill has the strong support of many anti-Castro dissidents in Cuba, including independent journalists, former political prisoners and members of the Ladies in White. These advocates support this legislation, saying, “We share the opinion that the isolation of the people of Cuba benefits the most inflexible interests of its government, while any opening serves to inform and empower the Cuban people and helps to further strengthen our civil society.”

Opponents of this legislation have tried to change the debate by complaining about delayed passage of pending free trade agreements. This bill can be passed while the work on free trade agreements continues. We can and must focus on more than one thing if we are going to expand and improve the U.S. economy.

This is in no way a reward for the Castro regime. Increasing our agriculture business with Cuba, increasing American travel to Cuba and exporting our democratic philosophy will no longer allow the Castro brothers to blame America for conditions in their failed regime.

We need to end these failed policies. As the Los Angeles Times wrote on July 10, “we need to pass this legislation not because Cuba deserves it or has earned it, but because our own policies have failed to bring about democratic change in more than a half-century.” The Cuban people who need our agricultural products and U.S. farmers who have a ready-made market just 90 miles off our coast in Cuba, are being punished by these failed policies. 

Rep. Peterson is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.