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Klobuchar offers bill to expand exports to Cuba

Increased sales of U.S. food and commodity exports to Cuba would be allowed under a bill introduced Thursday by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn.

The Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, introduced by Klobuchar and Sen. Mike Enza, R-Wyo., is the companion bill to one introduced last month by U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-7th District.

"American famers can greatly benefit from access to new markets in Cuba at a time when our economy needs it most," said Klobuchar Thursday. "This bill will create jobs by promoting U.S. agriculture exports. In addition, Cubans and Americans will be able to engage in open communication, an important step toward improving relations between our two nations."

The Klobuchar-Enzi legislation would allow exports to Cuba to occur under the same payment requirements as exports from other nations and eliminate the need for U.S. exporters to conduct payment transactions for agricultural sales to Cuba through banks in other nations, Klobuchar said.

Under long-standing U.S. trade regulations, all Cuban payments for U.S. agricultural products must be made before the products are received in Cuba, and payment transactions must be conducted through banks outside the U.S. or Cuba.

The Obama administration provided a temporary reprieve from the requirements earlier this year, and the Klobuchar-Enzi legislation would lift the restrictions permanently. In addition, the legislation will remove all restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba. Cuba is the only nation which U.S. citizens are currently prohibited from traveling to by law.

"Trade is an incredibly effective way to open communication with the Cuban people," Enzi said. "Not only will the trade of agricultural products help Cubans, it will expand a much needed market for American farmers and ranchers. Open trade is a positive step and I look forward to this bill becoming law."

The legislation will maintain existing requirements that U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba be paid for in cash, will only apply to categories of U.S. exports to Cuba permitted under current law, and will not allow Cuban exports access to U.S. markets.

Meanwhile Thursday, the U.S. House Agriculture Committee held a hearing to review U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba.

"The restrictions on agricultural trade with Cuba have failed to achieve their stated goal, and instead they have hand-delivered an export market in our own backyard to the Brazilians, the Europeans, and our other competitors around the world," Agriculture Committee Chairman Peterson said Thursday. "It's time we ask ourselves why we have in place policies that simply do not work and that only harm U.S. interests."

Among those testifying were American Farm Bureau Federal President Bob Stallman and National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson. Representatives of rice, wheat, corn and soybean producers as well as dairy producers also testified.

The Peterson bill, co-authored by Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., "will increase agricultural exports and supply food to the Cuban people," Stallman testified. "U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba do reach the Cuban people and are not solely placed in hard-currency supermarkets. Cuba's agricultural production does not meet the food demands of the nation so they must import agricultural goods, if not many Cuban citizens would go hungry."

Stallman said that the American Farm Bureau "is not currently advocating fully lifting the embargo, but we believe now is the time for Congress to take action to ease some of the current restrictions. President Obama early last year took action to eliminate the restrictions placed on Cuban American travel and remittances, as well as restrictions allowing U.S. telecommunication companies to do business in Cuba.

"What we are asking for from Congress and the administration is to give U.S. farmers the competitive advantage in Cuba that they should rightly have and the opportunity to increase U.S. agricultural exports," Stallman added.

NFU'S Johnson said his organization supports the end of the embargo on Cuban imports to the U.S. as well as Peterson's export bill.

"Expanding exports and trade are critical to expanding opportunities for U.S. agricultural producers and will allow producers to provide the highest quality food products to people around the world," Johnson testified. "Cuba relies on imports for most of its food needs. ... Passage of such legislation will increase exports, meaning millions of dollars for U.S. agriculture."

And lifting the current restrictions on tourism "would provide Cuba with more U.S. dollars, which could then be used to purchase more U.S. products, particularly more value-added agricultural products for the food service and hotel trades."

In 2009, the U.S. International Trade Commission estimated that U.S. exports to Cuba could increase by nearly $500 million a year if provisions in the Klobuchar-Enzi and Peterson-Moran legislation were enacted. In addition, allowing U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba would produce an estimated $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion a year and create as many as 23,000 jobs for the U.S. travel industry, according to one study.

Klobuchar, the chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Competitiveness, Innovation and Export Promotion, has led the effort to find new markets for U.S. products overseas, particularly for small and medium-sized producers. Last December, Klobuchar called for a report to detail the resources currently available to help small businesses increase their exports and provide recommendations for strengthening the programs.