Bill would boost US Agriculture Exports

Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX) has introduced legislation which could open the door to more exports of American farm products to Cuba. Conaway’s bill, H.R. 833, the Agricultural Export Enhancement Act of 2011, would define “payment of cash in advance” for U.S.-Cuban agricultural sales as receipt of payment by the seller prior to the transfer of the product’s title and the release of control of the product to the purchaser. Since 2005, federal regulations enforced by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control require advance payment in cash only, before U.S. ag exports leave an American port for Cuba. The bill would also prohibit the president from restricting direct transfers from a Cuban financial institution to U.S. financial institutions to pay for a product authorized for sale under U.S. law. Federal law allows the sale of our farm products to Cuba, but requires payment in cash only. Meaningful reform of our trade policy with Cuba took a huge step forward on June 30, 2010, when the House Agriculture Committee (then under Democratic control), voted 25 to 20 to pass the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act. That bill, which enjoyed bipartisan support, had 62 co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle and was backed by some 140 organizations from across the political spectrum including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, National Farmers Union, American Farm Bureau Federation and Human Rights Watch. That bill contained a provision to eliminate the expensive and discriminatory requirement that payments to American agricultural sellers pass through banks in other nations. But only four Republicans voted for the bill last year in committee. Conaway was one of the “no” votes and based his opposition on the bill’s travel portion which authorized travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens. In January, Conaway took over the chairman’s gavel of the Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management and last month he signaled that he would split off the travel restrictions from the farm sales provisions in the hope of moving a new bill. Getting this legislation to President Obama’s desk will not be easy as many in the Republican caucus remain rabidly anti-Castro and firmly committed to a pro-embargo stance. This cut-off-our-nose-to-spite-our-face hard line flies in the face of an April 2009 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll which showed 71 percent of Americans saying that the U.S. should reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba. In fact, Conaway’s office did not even put out a press release touting the filing of his bill on February 28 so as not to draw too much attention to the issue. Yet if we can sell Boeing planes to communist China why not sell food to hungry Cubans? Indeed, a study by Texas A&M University found that Texas, Conaway’s home state, would rank fifth among the top 20 states whose agricultural sectors would be affected by liberalizing the U.S. embargo against Cuba with an additional potential economic output of more than $162 million for Lone Star farmers and ranchers. The USA Rice Federation was first out of the box to endorse Conaway’s bill because the rice industry wants to see more direct trade with the island nation to our south. Cuba is a potential 400,000 to 600,000 metric ton rice market for the U.S. and USA Rice is working to get rice-state co-sponsors to H.R. 833.