However unlikely an alliance it may seem, the efforts by farm organizations, and most recently U.S. travel agents, has sent a strong message to Congress that the four-decades-old Cuba embargo needs to be dismantled.

Farm groups were key to the 2000 action by Congress to approve food and medicine sales to Cuba on a case-by-case basis; that has resulted in nearly $300 million in purchases of U.S. farm products, including Mid-South rice. The potential is far greater: At one time, Cuba was the number one customer for our rice β€” sales that over the last 40 years have gone instead to suppliers in the Far East and elsewhere. Savings in shipping costs alone, from Gulf ports, could make U.S. rice and other ag products far cheaper to Cuba.

It is estimated that, had it not been for the embargo, sales of U.S. rice to Cuba would have grown by 3 percent to 5 percent yearly.

With farm and business groups continuing to pressure lawmakers for greater trading freedom, American travel agents weighed in to try and get the restrictions lifted on travel to Cuba. As things now stand, Americans are barred from travel to Cuba, and in early October the Bush administration announced it would crack down on those who subvert the ban by going to Cuba through Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas or other countries. The Department of Homeland Security warned that it would begin identifying those who circumvented the restrictions. An estimated 25,000 Americans visited Cuba without government permission last year; it is estimated that more than 1 million would travel there, were they free to do so. Presently, only Cuban exiles visiting their families, media representatives, and others can go there with U.S. government approval.

While the House has passed measures in recent years to ease or eliminate restrictions on trade and travel, they've been shot down in the Senate. Thus, it was seen as a breakthrough, and something of a rebuke of the administration's hard-line stance, when the Senate voted lopsidedly (59-38) to make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba for business or pleasure (its sandy beaches once were a favorite winter escape and its exuberant nightlife was a year-round attraction). The measure was supported by several key Republican senators.

The Bush administration's intransigence on the issue, fueled by strong opposition from the politically powerful Cuban expatriate community in Florida, has thwarted most attempts at scuttling the restrictions against travel and trade. With a presidential election looming in 2004, nobody's betting any money that any significant letup will occur.

The Senate vote was part of a $90 billion funding bill for the treasury and transportation departments, and the president has threatened to veto it should it be included in the final measure that comes out of a conference committee with the House.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., recently summed up the feelings of many: β€œThe U.S. needs to take a long hard look at our policy β€” one that is years out of date, and serves only to hurt the Cuban people and punish U.S. businesses. It should be repealed.”


e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com