In a move that could eventually overturn some 50 years of U.S. policy, the House Agriculture Committee voted Wednesday to allow expanded trade and travel with Cuba.

Passed on a 25-20 vote, the “Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act (H.R. 4645)” now moves to the House Financial Services and Foreign Affairs committees for consideration.

“I am proud to say … the House Agriculture Committee took a courageous vote to end the short-sighted and failed policy that limits American agriculture’s access to the Cuban market,” said Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, following the hearing.

“An unprecedented coalition of agriculture, business, religious and social organizations (has) endorsed H.R. 4645, and today’s vote demonstrates that Congress is ready to change our nation’s approach on this issue.”

Kansas Rep. Jerry Moran — who, with Peterson, co-sponsored the legislation and was one of only four committee Republicans to vote for it — said the bill’s passage was “a step in the right direction and a victory for America’s farmers and ranchers. Cuba must import nearly 85 percent of its food and current U.S. trade policies hurt American farmers and ranchers by making it more expensive for Cuba to purchase U.S. agriculture products. Instead of buying U.S. commodities, current policy encourages Cuba to buy its food from countries such as Vietnam and China. I have long fought for common sense changes to our trade policy with Cuba in order to open up markets only 90 miles away. This legislation will standardize our trade policies, increase export sales and create thousands of American jobs without increasing the deficit.”

While U.S. agriculture advocacy groups are pleased with the committee vote, the bill’s ultimate success is hardly assured. Wednesday’s often contentious hearing made that very clear as many Republicans — while vowing support for the agriculture portion — blasted the bill’s travel provisions. Their argument: expanded travel provides too much potential for U.S. tourist dollars to prop up a failing Cuban government.

Legislators with family and constituent ties to Cuba also worried that the Castro government would never pay for property taken during the revolution or for ongoing human rights abuses.

As the hearing moved into its second hour, Republicans repeatedly suggested the bill’s agriculture and travel portions be somehow separated. Peterson, claiming his hands were tied by parliamentary procedure, was unmoved.

“We should continue to facilitate the shipment of food to Cuba and streamlining that process is important,” said Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, ranking member. “However, this bill goes beyond that aim and effectively, I believe, repeals the embargo the United States has had in place to prevent the enrichment of Castro’s regime. Removing travel restrictions for tourism has nothing to do with technical barriers to exports. The Cuban people are desperate for access to affordable food, not tourists.”

Lucas, as he has in past hearings, also tied the Cuba legislation to other trade deals. “Efforts to expand exports are important to our agricultural industry. That’s why I’ve continually pressed of opening up nearly $3 billion in trade through the free trade agreements we’ve already negotiated with Korea, Columbia and Panama. All are key allies and trading partners. In spite of the Obama administration’s increased rhetoric to take action on our pending trade agreements, it is yet to lay out a clear path for their immediate consideration. As a result, (U.S.) producers are being kept out of significant new markets.”

Acknowledging naysayers’ talking points, Peterson said, “Congress should be very clear that this bill won’t end the U.S. embargo on Cuba and won’t allow U.S. banks to extend credit to Cuba. … The current U.S. policies have hand-delivered an export market in our own backyard to Brazilian and European producers and other competitors around the world.

“It’s time to ask ourselves why we have this policy in place. It simply doesn’t work to bring change to Cuba and only harms U.S. interests.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com