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Ag Coalition Seeks End to Cuba Embargo

Major U.S. farm groups, Cargill, and CoBank were among nearly 30 organizations that launched the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba in Washington Thursday.

The new group drew support from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, U.S. Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and members of Congress who support liberalizing trade and travel to the island nation of 11 million people 90 miles from Florida.

The Obama Administration announced in December that it intends restore diplomatic relations with Cuba and will ease some Treasury Department restrictions on the sale of agriculture commodities and medicine, a loophole in the trade embargo which Congress approved in 2000.

But businesses and commodity groups still can’t compete as well with complicated cash-only rules that Congress needs to change, the group said Thursday.

“We can’t offer any credit and our competitors can,” said Betsy Ward, CEO of USA Rice Federation.

Vilsack said that Cuba imports about 80% of its food and is a $1.7 billion market.

Yet, according to Grant Kodavy, who heads Cargill’s sales in the Americas, the U.S. ships very little grain to Cuba despite some early successes after the easing of restrictions on food sales in 2000. While the U.S. supplies Mexico with 95% of its corn, in Cuba, “the United States does not cmpete on an even footing.”

Members of Congress, including Representative Kevin Cramer (R-ND) said that easing the trade embargo further won’t be easy and may have to be done in incremental steps. “We can do it with a short leash,” he said.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Soybean Association and the National Corn Growers Association are among the groups launching the coalition.

“It’s time we have a chance to better compete for Cuba’s business,” said NCGA president Chip Bowling in a statement. “NCGA has long supported normalized trade relations with Cuba, as part of our efforts to expand markets for U.S. corn and feed the world. We are proud to join this coalition. We will work closely with our fellow coalition members to advance a trade relationship with Cuba that is efficient, globally competitive, and benefits both nations.”

"Like any new and developing market, Cuba represents a great opportunity for soybean farmers in the U.S.," said ASA president, Wade Cowan. "We are proud to be part of the USACC because expanding our relationships with markets like Cuba generates concrete value for American farmers by increasing demand not only for soybeans, but also for the livestock and meat products that make up our largest customer base.”

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