Farm groups are throwing their support behind a bill that would prevent the Bush administration from requiring Cuba to pay in advance for shipments of U.S. grain and other commodities.

The legislation, introduced by Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho; Max Baucus, D-Mont.; and Pat Roberts, R-Kan., would ease other restrictions on sales to Cuba that the bill’s sponsors say threaten what is becoming a sizable market for U.S. exports.

Both the American Farm Bureau Federation and the USA Rice Federation said they support the bill, which also includes Sens. Jim Talent, R-Mo.; Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.; and Mary Landrieux, D-La., among its authors. Twenty senators said they supported the bill.

“The Agricultural Export Facilitation Act (2005) will insure that farmers can keep the market and continue to sell their products to Cuba as they have done without incident for several years,” said Baucus, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.

“Today, I will not allow bureaucrats to reinterpret Congress’ original intent and obstruct already established legal trade,” said Craig.

Washington observers say the Bush administration had been allowing shipments to be made to Cuba if payment could be received in 72 hours. But Treasury Department officials reportedly began preparing new regulations requiring that payment be made in advance when some payments took longer to go through.

The bill would authorize Cuba to make payments directly to U.S. banks, clarify that Cuba’s payments do not have to be received before exports leave U.S. shores, make it easier for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba to market agricultural products and expedite temporary visas for Cuban nationals to visit the United States to inspect goods before they are shipped.

Sponsors said that’s what they thought they were saying when Congress passed the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, which opened trade between the United States and Cuba for the first time in nearly 40 years.

“We applaud these changes, which would clarify Congress’ intent when it enacted trade sanctions reforms in 2000 and streamline the procedure that allows U.S. farmers and ranchers to export their products to Cuba,” said AFBF President Bob Stallman. “Congress clearly meant to open the Cuban market for farm exports, and this bill is a positive next step.”

Exports to Cuba more than doubled last year, and Cuba is now a top market for U.S. agricultural exports. It is currently the No. 4 market for U.S. rice exports. Other important markets include those for wheat, corn, soybeans and soybean products, poultry, livestock, apples and dairy products.

“Enactment of this new legislation would result in even more trade with Cuba,” Stallman said. “It would simplify the license process that farmers use to sell goods to Cuba and it would reduce transaction costs for those sales. It would help maintain the United States as a reliable supplier of food and farm products to Cuba.”

USA Rice Federation leaders noted that the bill’s language says that nothing in the TSREEA legislation in 2000 supports “the view that Congress intended payment to be made in advance of the shipment of goods from this country to Cuba.”

U.S. farmers have sold about $800 million worth of agricultural products to Cuba since 2001.

“Cuba has become an important new, growth market for U.S. farm exports, and farmers need that growth to continue,” Stallman added. “Farm Bureau commends the senators who are cosponsoring this bill to remove obstacles to our export growth.”

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