Two senators announced legislation designed to boost the sales of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba, seeking to tap a market that has seen shipments from the U.S. dwindle in recent years.
Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and John Boozman, R-Ark., introduced the bill Wednesday, the latest in a series of legislative and administrative steps taken since President Barack Obama in December announced a thawing of relations with the island nation.
The bill seeks to remove one of the main barriers to open agricultural trade with Cuba: the prohibition on credit sales. According to the lawmakers, current law prohibits any kind of financing of exports to Cuba and requires cash payment up front, curtailing potential sales.
The bill by Heitkamp and Boozman, the Agricultural Export Expansion Act, would lift the ban on private banks and companies from offering credit for agricultural exports to Cuba. It was cosponsored by Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Although a broad embargo governs trade with Cuba, agricultural products have been granted some leeway, although the financing restrictions mean trade is far from free and open.
Overall, Cuba imports more than $2 billion a year in food and agricultural products. The U.S. share of that has been several hundred million dollars in recent years, although it has been trending down and totaled less than $300 million in 2014; agricultural experts see the potential for U.S. sales to exceed $1.2 billion annually within five years.
The U.S. farm lobby is pushing hard for a full repeal of the trade embargo -– and while there is bipartisan support for such a move it remains very controversial in Congress and experts say a full repeal is very unlikely this Congress.
At best, according to U.S.-Cuba experts, trade advocates are in for a long battle. Short of full repeal, experts said, politicians might find agreement on further relaxing financial regulations, such as the credit ban.