WASHINGTON – Senators from farm states announced a new bill Wednesday that would loosen restrictions on agricultural trade with Cuba.
Exporting rice,poultry,cattle and other farm-grown goods to Cuba is a pioneer's trade route,taken up in December 2001,after the U.S. government enacted the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000.
The 10 Republican and 10 Democratic senators said the bill is necessary to block the Treasury Department from issuing regulations that would limit practices begun under the 2000 law.
The new bill,called the Export Facilitation Act of 2005,would authorize direct payments from Cuba to U.S. banks. Payments for goods must now go through European banks,which charge a substantial fee.
The bill would also allow American agricultural producers to travel to Cuba to sell their products. Americans may not legally travel to Cuba.
One of 20 supporters of the bill,Sen. Mike Crapo,R-Idaho,said,”It is my hope that this legislation can bring clarity and efficiency to the export of U.S. agricultural goods to Cuba. We should not punish U.S. farmers by limiting access to markets for agricultural and humanitarian goods. Additionally,further U.S. engagement in Cuba through relaxed travel restrictions provides an opportunity to bring about positive change in Cuba.”
Late last year,according to Molly Millerwise,a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department,financial institutions approached the department because they were confused over what payment policies were allowed. She said the department was asked to clarify and provide guidance.
But supporters of the bill said Treasury Department regulations concerning the Cuban embargo conflict with the ability to execute agriculture transactions easily.
Sen. Max Baucus,D-Mont.,the senior Democrat on the Finance Committee,in December threatened to block Treasury Department confirmations until the issue was resolved.
Nearly steaming as he spoke,Sen. Larry Craig,R-Idaho,argued that “the Treasury is trying to change the act by restricting it in a way that is counter to the intent of the statute.”
He said the bill is narrow. “It doesn't address the travel ban,it doesn't address the embargo,it doesn't address other U.S. provisions with respect to Cuba,” Craig said. “It only address provisions already in the law.”
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart,R-Fla,who represents Naples,said regulations do follow the law,and said the new bill is unnecessary. He denounced it as an attempt to soften the embargo.
“It distresses me to see a group of U.S. senators casually dismiss the gravity of the War on Terror by encouraging trade with a state sponsor of terrorism just 90 miles off our coast,” Diaz-Balart said in an e-mail statement. “I assume next they will encourage trade with other terrorist regimes like North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il or Iran’s Ayatollah.”
Sen. Mel Martinez,R-Fla.,also disagreed with any legislation that turns a blind eye to the embargo's positive effects on human rights in Cuba.
He issued a statement that said,“When Castro continues to subject his own people to oppression and shows no signs of letting up on human rights abuses,it is not the right time to ease embargo restrictions whatsoever.”