USA Rice Federation and U.S. Wheat Associates in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has asked that the United States “put aside political concern and ease trade and travel restriction that are denying the Cuban people the relief and assistance so critically needed” in the devastating wake of Hurricane Ike.

The hurricane tore through Caribbean, killing 61 people in Haiti and four in Cuba, where it destroyed hundreds of homes and other buildings, according to news reports.

USA Rice supports the normalization of trade and travel with Cuba.

“Rice is the basic commodity in Cuba, which imports over 600,000 metric tons each year, and the country was once the primary export market for U.S. rice,” USA Rice Federation President and CEO Betsy Ward said. Cuba is also a major importer of other agricultural products used by more than 11 million people.

“We are confident that the lifting of trade and travel sanctions on Cuba would result in that country once again becoming a top importer of U.S. rice,” she said.

“The multi-generational trade embargo against Cuba has over the years cost the U.S. rice industry more than $3 billion in lost contracts, and perhaps thousands of jobs,” Ward said.

“As a starting point,” she said, “agricultural trade with Cuba should be fully authorized as intended by the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, under which U.S. agricultural and medical exports were sanctioned.”

Regulatory action by the Bush administration early in early 2005 stipulated payment of cash in advance for trade deals, placing U.S. rice traders at a competitive disadvantage with other trade partners, notably Vietnam and China.

A bill sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., in December, and cosponsored by Sens. Blanche L. Lincoln, D-Ark., Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., and others, would remove the administration’s restrictions on exporting food, medical devices and medicines to Cuba, allow U.S. citizens to travel to the island, and would establish an agricultural export promotion program for Cuba.

Just over a year ago, the USA Rice Federation adopted a policy resolution calling on Congress and the administration “to put an end to the U.S. trade and travel embargo on Cuba,” because it “continues to deny valuable business opportunities to American farmers, millers and allied businesses, like transportation, storage and shipping. The embargo on Cuba is effectively an embargo on U.S. agricultural products, including rice, and as such should not be continued. The USA Rice Federation supports a return to normal commercial relations between Cuba and the United States.”