Displeased with Cuba’s Fidel Castro-led revolution, adoption of communism and embrace of the Soviet Union, the U.S. government broke diplomatic ties with Havana in 1961. A subsequent embargo and travel restrictions have been in place since.

Now, with Fidel’s brother, Raul, in charge of the island nation, it appears the Obama administration is set to lift, or at least curtail, those restrictions.

If the policy shift indeed occurs (a White House announcement is expected to coincide with the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago on April 17-19), U.S. agriculture is expected to benefit. The USA Rice Federation, which has long promoted agricultural trade with Cuba, says that “prior to the embargo, Cuba — potentially a 400,000- to 600,000-metric ton market for Southern long-grain rice producers — was the largest export market for U.S. rice.

“Trade resumed in 2002 after Congress passed the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (TSREEA). However, with the Treasury Department’s reinterpretation of TSREEA in 2005, U.S. rice exports declined from 176,632 metric tons in 2004 to less than 13,000 metric tons in 2008. Vietnam and China were the chief beneficiaries of the reinterpretation.”

Much of the impetus for the trade move has come from a bipartisan foursome in Congress. In late March, Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., reintroduced legislation (titled Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, S.428) first offered in January. If adopted, the legislation would allow travel to Cuba for any reason outside the caveats of war or direct threats to health or safety. A similar bipartisan House bill already has more than 100 co-sponsors.

Among the reasons for the move, the senators claimed in a press conference, is that despite the embargo being in place for nearly 50 years, the Castro brothers remain in power. More engagement with the United States would actually make it easier for Cuban citizens to foment political change.

“This issue today with respect to the travel restrictions is a failed policy that has failed for 50 years,” said Dorgan. “And it is long past the time to change the policy.”

Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican with Cuban heritage, was having none of it. “This is the time to support pro-democracy activists in Cuba, not provide the Castro regime with a resource windfall,” said Martinez in a press statement.

Contribute to Castro

“Changing travel restrictions for U.S. citizens will simply allow Americans to contribute to the resources available to the Castro regime to perpetuate its repression. My fellow senators should be standing in solidarity and showing support for the 11 million Cubans who are suffering under the Cuban regime, instead of making it easier for Americans to vacation in Cuba.”

On the Cuban trade issue, it appears Martinez has suffered a reversal of fortune. In order to gain support for a massive $410 billion stimulus bill, in early March the Obama administration backed calls by Martinez and two Democratic senators, Florida’s Bill Nelson and New Jersey’s Robert Menendez, to scuttle parts of the bill calling for ease in agricultural trading with Cuba. While the bill stopped short of lifting the trade embargo, it said the U.S. Treasury Department would not enforce rules requiring cash-in-advance payment for agricultural shipments to the island nation.

By successfully blocking the stimulus bill measure, the senatorial trio faced much criticism from agriculture organizations and their fellow politicians. With U.S. commodity exporters still required to receive payments through third-party banks in advance of shipments, Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln said the situation is “ridiculous. I was very amazed they actually turned around what had been in the omnibus bill, where cash advance sales were allowed.”

(To see Lincoln’s full comments on Cuba, go to Cuba, campaigns and Wall Street.)

“I’m not sure I completely understand what they want. Completely remain isolated from Cuba forever and not try to engage and move Cuba in a certain direction? Clearly, there is a policy of disengagement and obviously maintaining the embargoes and inability to do sales for agricultural products.

“We’ll stay on this one. At some point, an ear in the Obama administration will hear the reasonableness of … opening up trade with Cuba for food and medicine.”

Like Martinez, Menendez has said he’ll continue to fight those arguing for easing embargo restrictions. Undaunted by critics of his stance, in a speech on the Senate floor Menendez said proponents of the trade change overlook the fact that “over the years, millions of Europeans, Canadians, Mexicans, South and Central Americans, among others, have visited Cuba, invested in Cuba, spent billions of dollars, signed trade agreements and engaged politically. What’s been the result of all of that money and all of that engagement? The regime has not opened up. On the contrary, it has used resources to become more oppressive.”

Menendez was also upset that the initial attempt to loosen restrictive Cuban policy hadn’t been done in the open. Instead, a provision was quietly attached to unrelated legislation. “If you want to change Cuba policy, fine, let’s duke it out,” Menendez chastised reform proponents. “Let’s have our debate and let’s have our amendments. Let’s know who’s for democracy and human rights and who wants to sell their stuff no matter how many people are in prison. That’s fine. At least it will be an honest discussion.”

Dukes raised or not, momentum is against Menendez and his allies. The U.S. rice industry is certainly excited by the prospects trade with Cuba offer. Regarding S.428, Jamie Warshaw, USA Rice Federation chairman, said “reestablishing normal commercial relations with Cuba is an important priority for the U.S. rice industry as that market could again become a top export destination for U.S. rice. We believe there is great opportunity for advancing trade and travel policies regarding Cuba during this Congress.”

For more on U.S./Cuba trade, see Delta Farm Press: Cuba.

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com