When he introduced legislation aimed at reforming U.S./Cuba trade, Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, House agriculture Committee chairman, said “Helping feed Cuba is good for the U.S. economy and for the Cuban people.

“This bill increases the ability of our farmers to sell their products to Cuba just like they do with our other trading partners.”

For more, see Bill would loosen Cuba trade embargo.

In the days following, agriculture proponents of the Peterson’s “Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act — H.R. 4645” have largely stayed with the same message: reforms won’t only boost sales of U.S. commodities but would help feed the island nation.

Chris Garza, American Farm Bureau Federation senior director of Congressional relations, spoke with Delta Farm Press on March 2 and explained how the AFBF sees the situation, where opposition will come from and what’s happening with the legislation behind the scenes on Capitol Hill. Among his comments:

Latest on the Cuba trade/travel bill…

Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, “introduced the bill last week. We’ve been working with the chairman on this for, probably, the last two months. Prior to the introduction, we were trying to garner as many co-sponsors for the bill as possible.

“We’ve been supportive of (opening trade) and are definitely supportive of this bill. It took a lot of work amongst a lot of people who feel they have a stake in this to … agree on what should be included.

“Some may not be aware there are several Cuba bills out there. There are bills that would just lift the travel to others that would lift the full embargo.

“The overall goal is to demonstrate to leadership that we have the votes for this and to try and find a path to get this on the House floor for a vote. At that point, we can begin working on the Senate. To pass this in the House would require 215 votes.”

What about the staunch opposition to (opening trade with Cuba) that’s been in place for decades? Are they working to defeat this?

“We haven’t heard much from the public in opposition to this. For a while, Cuban-Americans have been caught up in this and didn’t want to ease the restrictions.

“Over the past couple of years, though, polls on this issue have shown the Cuban-American community has been more accepting of easing some of the restrictions, easing the travel restriction.

“Most of the opposition we’ve heard has come from particular members of Congress. That’s unfortunate because (Peterson’s bill) is good. It will help U.S. farmers export more product and also will feed the people of Cuba.

“U.S. agriculture doesn’t support uplifting the Castro regime nor are we supporters of communism. But there’s a market there, Cubans need to eat, we provide quality product and so we just want the opportunity to sell product to Cuba.

“The opposition will come out on this issue. I think a lot of misinformation from the opposition” will be provided. “We need to put the facts out. We’re not asking for credit, this is a one-way bill and it’s about U.S. farmers being able to sell products to Cuba. We definitely have a chance” for the bill to pass.

“But this is a political issue and has always been tied up in that. The political hurdle is the biggest one we have to get over.”

On overwhelming support from agricultural organizations to pass such legislation…

“It isn’t just Farm Bureau pushing for this. The poultry, dairy, corn, soybean, apple industries all want this. We sent a letter to Capitol Hill with about 30 different agriculture organizations and agribusinesses that are in support of this.

“There is strong agricultural support behind this bill.”

On the timing of the bill’s debate…

“Considering we’re in an election year, our ultimate goal is to get this done in the next couple of months. The later we wait, the more this could get wrapped into the congressional reelection campaigns and it’ll become more difficult. We definitely don’t want to get stuck in that.

“So, there’s a big push right now to try and get a vote in the House.”

Impact this would have on the U.S. agricultural sector?

“We went from zero exports to Cuba in 2000 (when the U.S. first loosened export restrictions) to now exporting about $400 million per year. The sales have gone up and down. A lot of that is because Cuba doesn’t necessarily see the U.S. as a reliable supplier under current conditions.

“As we saw in 2004, an administration can come in and change the rules on how we trade with Cuba. So, Cuba looks more to Brazil, Argentina, the EU and a lot of our major competitors to fill their needs.

But Cuba would be a good market for U.S. agriculture. Again, we’re doing about $400 million annually.

“When this issue first moved in 2000, Texas A&M did a study where it was estimated that the Cuban market would be worth about $1 billion to U.S. agriculture. Based on what we’re currently averaging, we think that might be a bit conservative.”

Anything else?

“It’s key everyone realize this isn’t a bill about supporting communism; it’s a bill about removing some of the restrictions to allow U.S. agriculture to export more products to feed the Cuban people.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com