Legislation to Open Cuba Ag Trade ‘On Hold’ Pending Trump, Conaway Says

Bloomberg BNA

By: Casey Wooten

Legislative progress on expanding agricultural trade with Cuba is probably on hold until President-elect Donald Trump further details his policy for the island nation, the top lawmaker on the House Agriculture Committee said.

Following the Nov. 25 death of long-time Cuban leader Fidel Castro, President-elect Donald Trump raised the prospect of his administration reversing the relaxation of travel and diplomatic ties to the country. Trump’s rhetoric could dampen the hopes of some in the agriculture industry to advance legislation easing trade restrictions with the country.

“I think it’s all up to Trump, and until he makes a call one way or the other, I think just about everything’s on hold, so we’ll probably take our cues from what he decides what he wants to do because the president’s an important cog in that whole conversation,” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) told Bloomberg BNA.

Trump has said he opposes the “one-sided” deals President Barack Obama has struck with the Cuban government and, as in other aspects of his foreign policy, said he would reverse the detente with Cuba unless the Castro regime satisfied additional U.S. demands.

“If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban-American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate [the] deal,” Trump tweeted Nov. 28.

Cuba is highly dependent on imports to feed its population, and U.S. agribusiness views the country as a prime export market. In 2015, the U.S. exported $149 million in agricultural goods to Cuba, down sharply from the high of $685 million in 2008, according to the Congressional Research Service. That drop is blamed partly on U.S. credit restrictions when trading with Cuba.

Credit Bill

Though many are waiting on a definitive statement from Trump on Cuba policy, Conaway said that the groundwork for easing certain agricultural trade restrictions would probably continue at the committee level.

The Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, which would lift restrictions preventing U.S. agricultural companies from providing credit to Cuban entities to purchase agricultural goods, would probably be reintroduced early in the next Congress, Conaway, who backs the bill, said.

The bill, introduced in 2015 by Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.), would lift restrictions put in place by the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (Pub. L. No. 106-387). While that legislation opened certain U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba, it placed restrictions on extending financing to Cuban entities. Cuban buyers must pay in advance and in cash for U.S. agricultural products, and third-party banks must process the transactions.

Though Crawford’s bill got a hearing this year, it never advanced out of committee or was attached to broader legislation that passed Congress. What happens to the bill next year will hinge greatly on Trump’s stance toward the Cuban government, Conaway said.

“He’s really in the catbird’s seat on that whole issue,” Conaway told Bloomberg BNA.

Optimism

Congress aside, Trump could unilaterally roll back some of the changes made by the Obama administration on trade policy with Cuba.

For example, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced in March that his department would green-light agricultural checkoff funds to be used for research and promotion programs in Cuba. Checkoff funds are collected from producers of a particular commodity to be used for industry-wide promotion.

But Lee Ann Evans, senior policy adviser at Engage Cuba, a Washington-based group that advocates for lifting the trade embargo, said he had hopes that Trump’s pro-business positions during the campaign will translate to a pragmatic approach on Cuba policy.

“We are really optimistic that Trump is going to continue along with his policy that he ran on of creating jobs and eliminating government overreach,” Evans told Bloomberg BNA.

Evans also said it’s likely the Cuba agricultural trade bill will make another appearance, and said that her group has been adding legislators to its roster of supporters.

“We’ve made progress in Congress and that’s where the real change needs to take place,” she said. “We have public opinion on our side, and that’s not going to turn around.”