A March hearing on HR 4645 — which would ease travel and sales of U.S. products into Cuba — contained several lengthy, noteworthy exchanges between Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee. While most of the committee expressed interest in allowing expanded U.S. sales, there was no such agreement with regard to travel.

For more on the bill, see Bill would loosen Cuba trade embargo.

Pass the legislation

Offering a spirited defense of the legislation and a review of recent history regarding U.S./Cuba relations, Kansas Rep. Jerry Moran said in July of 2000, he offered an amendment on the House floor “that would prohibit the use of money in an appropriation bill from being used to enforce sanctions for food, agriculture products and medicine in a sale to Cuba.”

Despite facing daunting odds, the bill passed 301 to 116. Congress, after decades of an embargo against Cuba, decided it was time to change tactics.

“In Kansas, we’ll try something once,” continued Moran, a Republican. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll probably try it again. We might even try it a third. But after about 40 years, Kansans would decide ‘let’s try something different. If our goal is to try and change the leadership of Cuba, let’s do something different.’

“I admit my interest in this was very provincial — it was about Kansas farmers. How do we get another market in a difficult economy to sell our products?

“As a result, the Trade Sanctions and Reform Export Act of 2000 became law. We were doing just fine until 2005 when the Treasury Department decided to change the regulations and say that cash in advance no longer meant — as it does every place else — when the ship arrives in Havana. (The change) meant when the ship leaves the United States. So, we said … the Cubans had to pay that much earlier…

“They also restricted the use of a U.S. bank and Cuba had to go to a third party bank in a foreign country and get a letter of credit. That increased the cost of doing business with the United States.

“As a result, after the 2005 change in regulations, we lost 20 to 30 percent of our exports. Year after year, I’ve offered the amendment to the appropriation bill that says ‘no money can be spent in this appropriation bill to enforce the (2005) regulations that make no sense.’ That amendment has passed time and time again … most recently last year. … The controversy that sometimes surrounds this issue is pretty limited when it comes to the agricultural side of what we’re doing…

“We became seen by Cubans as an unreliable selling partner — again, not a trading partner but a selling partner — and still sold $708 million worth of agricultural commodities to Cuba in 2008. They import rice from Vietnam and China if they aren’t buying it from us…

“When we don’t sell to Cuba, it’s a unilateral sanction. All we’re doing is restricting our ability for our farmers and agribusinesses to conduct business in Cuba. France, Argentina and Canada love our embargo. They love the fact that we’ve restricted the market because they fill it in.

“If you’re interested in whether the Cuban people get the food, that isn’t in this bill. We can’t necessarily affect that — when we don’t sell to them, someone else does. Those decisions are already made … whether or not we agree to take (Cuban) cash.

“We deal with communist countries on an ongoing basis in a trading relationship in which we offer credit. Who is the United States’ biggest creditor? China! And yet we’re nervous about selling for cash, up front, agricultural commodities, food and medicine to a country 90 miles off our shore. What a double standard we’ve created in this country.

“In Kansas, today, we wouldn’t object to selling Boeing aircraft to China. Yet, we worry about whether or not to sell wheat to Cuba. I don’t understand how we got ourselves in this position.”

Not so fast

Opposite Moran in the debate, Iowa Rep. Steve King said he once held similar beliefs about opening trade with Cuba. Then, in the 1990s, he traveled to the island nation and came back with a changed mind.

“I took the initiative to go on a trip to Cuba. … I wanted to personally ratify my opinion we should open up trade with Cuba…

“We spent our days being handled by Castro’s minders, going from place to place listening to people in gray smocks answer questions that were translated from English into Spanish that weren’t the questions we were asking.”

King and a fellow legislator “went off on our own. An individual approached us along Havana harbor and became our guide for three days. We went all over island. He was a communist, a Marxist, and was a proud Cuban. He was a Cuban historian. Through those long days, I learned some things despite his intent to give us a three-day commercial.

“Two things stood out that I can’t get past.

“One is when Castro nationalized property — in 1963, I think — 25 percent of the deeds were in the hands of Americans. Americans are the only ones not to be compensated for that real estate. They hold the deeds today.

“If there was to be investments of Americans into Cuba … I can’t imagine Castro doing anything except selling that real property that belongs to Americans back to other Americans to pit them against each other.”

Second, “it was a surprise to me that, at that time, the exchange of the peso to the dollar was 21 to one. One would think Americans trading in Cuba, tourists going to Cuba, would give the Cubans an opportunity to make some money and maybe lift them up economically. But what really happens … is Cubans could earn dollars and hold them. But they couldn’t spend (the dollars) unless they went to a ‘dollar store’ where an American dollar was worth one peso, not 21. Castro was picking up the 20 peso vigorish … and that was going, and still goes, into his treasury to fund … his brutal communist dictatorship.

“Those are two points I couldn’t get past. I couldn’t find a way to rationalize that…

“We’ve invested nearly half a century into waiting out the biological solution in Cuba. … I’m more patient than the witnesses before us. I’m willing to wait out this biological solution…

“I’d say Castro has been an exporter of his Marxist ideology in the Western hemisphere. That changes the argument on whether we allow trade into China or Iran. … (Cuba) is our back door.

“I’m not opposed to getting food to Cubans. If we do something, I’d hope we limit our endeavor to getting food to Cubans rather than inadvertently propping up a communist regime.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com