Old habits die hard. At least that seems to be the case with the administration’s latest efforts to restrict trade between U.S. farmers and food processors and Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba.

For most of its first term the administration has thrown up roadblocks to food shipments to Cuba even after Congress passed the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act in December 2001. Making it more difficult for prospective sellers to travel to Cuba was just one.

The obstacles appeared to be aimed at solidifying the president’s support among Cuban-American refugees for the 2004 elections. The tactic apparently worked since the president carried Florida handily.

The administration seems to be intent on continuing those efforts judging from reports that the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control is considering new guidelines that would require U.S. exporters to receive payment before goods leave U.S. ports.

Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont.; Larry Craig, R-Idaho; and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., first brought the proposal to light in a letter protesting the rule change to Treasury Secretary John Snow. Baucus also threatened to put a hold on prospective Treasury Department nominees.

Since then, farm groups have weighed in on the issue, writing a letter to the president asking him to drop the proposal.

“There is no reason to change rules of payment that might reduce the market for the products produced by our members and exported to Cuba, including wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, chickens, pork, eggs, dairy products, apples and others,” said Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman.

The letter notes that, since trade was re-established with Cuba in December 2001, Alimport, the Cuban food-buying agency, has been required to pay prior to goods being released in Cuba, not prior to shipment.

“We urge you not to make unnecessary and harmful changes to the implementation of the TRSA,” the letter says. “Cuba has become our 22nd largest agricultural market, valued at almost $400 million per year. TRSA has been followed flawlessly for the past three years. Any changes made would threaten to shut down an important market for U.S. exporters of agricultural goods.”

The letter also questions the extraordinary legal risks of Cuba paying for goods in advance of shipment and having those goods remain on U.S. soil. These Cuban goods would be subject to court-ordered seizures that could result from legal claims against Cuba.

The proposal comes amid reports that Cuba’s government “is on its last legs,” as a U.S. diplomat in Cuba said. The reports said that supporters of the regime, which will have been in power 46 years on New Year’s Day, are preparing for the departure of Castro, 78.

Neither the president nor his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who has indicated he does not plan to run for the Senate or the presidency, will face Florida voters again. It’s time for the administration to put the interests of U.S. farmers ahead of the impossible dreams of Cuban refugees in Miami.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com