The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2003, introduced by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., seeks to normalize relations with Cuba by lifting the trade embargo and removing travel restrictions between the two countries.

“If you believe that an embargo can hurt Castro without hurting the Cuban people, then tightening the embargo might make some sense. But it doesn’t work that way. The embargo harms the Cuban people more than it will ever harm Castro,” says Baucus, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“After 43 years, it ought to be clear to everyone that the embargo has failed to weaken Castro. A better approach is to reach out to the Cuban people. Ending the travel ban is the first and best way to do this.”

USA Rice Federation Chairman Gary Sebree agrees. “The long-standing trade embargo against Cuba continues to weaken the economic health of the rice industry and parts of rural America,” he said.

“We are currently allowed to sell rice to Cuba, but there is a lot of red tape that limits the import potential of this market. Our goal is normal commercial relations with Cuba, and this bill is another step in that direction, and we urge Congress to approve this legislation.”

Sebree, a rice farmer from Stuttgart, Ark., said the rice federation applauds Sen. Baucus and his colleagues for their tireless efforts to re-open Cuban markets for U.S. agriculture.

The U.S. Wheat Associates says it too is anxious to open the door to less restrictive trade with Cuba. “We will continue to do everything in our power to end the embargo and embark on normalizing relations,” says Paul Dickerson, U.S. Wheat vice-president.

Cuba purchased 127,300 metric tons of hard red winter wheat in marketing year 2001-2002. So far this marketing year, they have purchased 93,700 metric tons of wheat. These cash sales follow U.S. Wheat Associates market development activities in Cuba over the last several years and are a hopeful sign that trade can begin to take on a sense of normalcy, the wheat group says.

Believing that repeal of the travel ban is long overdue, Baucus says, “One study of American sales with Cuba has suggested that lifting the travel ban could result in an additional quarter billion dollars of agricultural sales and create thousands of jobs. If we truly care about democracy, let us travel to Cuba and show them democracy in action.

“Castro wants the embargo to continue,” said Baucus. “Every time we get close to more open relations, Castro shuts the process down with some repressive act designed to have a chilling effect on U.S.-Cuban relations. Castro fears an end to the embargo, because he knows the day the embargo falls is the day he runs out of excuses. Without the embargo, Castro would have no one to blame for the failing Cuban economy. Nor would his way of governing be able to survive the influx of Americans and democratic ideas that would flood his land if the embargo were lifted.”

“If Castro fears contact between the Cuban people and the American people, the rational American response is to send more Americans, not fewer,” he says. “More importantly, ending the travel ban would help farmers and ranchers.”

Co-sponsors of the Baucus bill include Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.; Lincoln Chaffee, R-R.I.; Larry Craig, R-Ind.; Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.; Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.; Tim Johnson, D-S.D.; and Mark Dayton, D-Minn.

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com