WASHINGTON — A group of nine commodity groups is asking Congress to continue permitting unrestricted travel to Cuba.

"For over 40 years, the U.S. government has attempted to foster democratic progress and reform in Cuba by cutting off virtually all commercial contact between the United States and Cuba and severely restricting people-to-people contact, including travel to Cuba. These restrictions have not been successful, and important foreign policy and commercial interests of the United States have suffered," the letter states.

As the month of October was winding down, both houses passed their versions of the fiscal 2004 appropriation bills for the departments of Transportation and Treasury, and each included a provision prohibiting most U.S. travel to Cuba.

Because the House and Senate versions of the bill must now be reconciled in conference, the recent letter was sent to chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House committees on appropriations and the House and Senate subcommittees on transportation and treasury, all potential conferees.

Signing the letter are representatives with the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Soybean Association, the Corn Refiners Association, the National Association of Wheat Growers, the National Corn Growers Association, the National Milk Producers' Federation, the National Oilseed Processor Association, the U.S. Dairy Export Council and the USA Rice Federation.

The commodity groups believe U.S. agricultural exports would benefit from expanded travel to Cuba. To back up their argument, they cite a Texas A&M study which predicts that the U.S. agriculture community could benefit from $250 million in new business opportunities and almost 7,000 new jobs with unrestricted travel to Cuba.

"U.S. farmers and ranchers are seeking the resumption of normal commercial relations with Cuba, and unrestricted travel to Cuba is an important component," the letter states. "We believe that the process of engagement and trade holds greater promise for the establishment of democracy in Cuba than current failed policies. We urge inclusion in the transportation-treasury conference report of language to allow for unrestricted travel to Cuba."

"Removing the ban on travel is an important step towards normal commercial relations between the United States and Cuba, and is supported by USA Rice and many in the agricultural community," the USA Rice Federation noted in its Nov. 4 newsletter.

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com