Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford wants to remove barriers to trade with Cuba while also aiding victims of the Cuban government, the Jonesboro Republican said Friday.
So his legislation, which seeks to open Cuban markets to U.S. agriculture, will allow for a 2 percent surcharge on agricultural sales. The money that is collected will be used to compensate Americans whose property was seized after the Cuban Revolution, he said.
Current U.S. law prevents American farmers from extending credit to Cuban purchasers. Crawford's bill would drop that restriction.
Past efforts to change the law have failed after encountering opposition from members of the Florida congressional delegation, where more than 1.2 million people of Cuban origin reside. Roughly two-thirds of all Cuban-Americans live in Florida.
The original version of HR525, the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, didn't include the fee when it was filed in January.
In an interview Friday, Crawford said he plans to file an amended version of his legislation next week to reflect the change. The lawmaker estimates the 2-percent fee would generate roughly $30 million per year initially, rising to perhaps $60 million within five to seven years.
The Foreign Claims Settlement Commission of the U.S. reviewed 8,821 claims against the Cuban government, determining that 5,913 of them were valid. The total amount owed was initially about $1.9 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Justice website.
With interest, the amount owed has climbed to about $8 billion, according to a study by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based, left-leaning think tank.
Even if the legislation is passed, the debt won't be paid off any time soon, Crawford acknowledges.
"It will take an awful long time to liquidate that pool of claimants and make them whole, but it's a significant step forward," he said. "To my knowledge there's never been any attempt to ever address this problem before."
Crawford, who represents the nation's top rice-producing district, wanted to roll back the trade restrictions last year, but backed off, hoping he could craft language that could garner widespread support.
Since then, he's been working to reach a compromise that would satisfy the Floridians, he said.
"What we're trying to do is make sure that their concerns are being addressed. We've done that," he said. "This is really the final piece of the puzzle that goes into place and I think, with their support, we have a really good shot at getting this thing across the finish line."
Crawford said U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., deserves credit for suggesting the fee.
"It was language inserted into the bill that he suggested and he has indicated his support for the proposal now," Crawford said.
A spokesman for Curbelo declined to respond Friday, but pointed to a statement the lawmaker made earlier this week about the legislation.
Curbelo told El Nuevo Herald, Miami's Spanish-language daily newspaper, that he supports -- in principle -- taxing agricultural exports to Cuba to raise funds for those harmed by its communist regime.
"Although no definitive agreement has been reached, the concept that the victims of [Fidel] Castro's tyranny may perceive some benefit from U.S.-Cuba transactions deserves to be considered," the southern Florida politician said. "During the previous administration everything was granted to the dictatorship without demanding anything. Now that has to change."
A Cuban-American politician who fought to block the bill last year -- U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. -- hasn't said whether he'll back the proposal, Crawford said.
Given the changes that have been made to the bill to address Diaz-Balart's concerns, "it's going to be difficult for him to oppose it and I don't expect that he will," Crawford said.
The legislation, in its current state, has 39 co-sponsors. Crawford said he hopes to meet with White House officials again next week to discuss the proposal.
Crawford's efforts come as the White House is considering changes to the nation's Cuba policy.
President Donald Trump is weighing whether to tighten restrictions on trade and commerce, reversing steps that had been taken by President Barack Obama, The New York Times reported Wednesday.
Crawford predicted Trump would craft a "pro-America" free-trade policy that protects U.S. interests.
"He's a forward-thinking individual and there's no reason to think that he's going to go back to the Cold War embargo policies," the lawmaker said.
Engage Cuba, a Washington-based nonprofit group that opposes the decades-old trade and travel restrictions, released a written statement Friday praising Crawford's latest efforts.
"This negotiated bipartisan legislation will make it easier for Americans to sell food to private Cuban citizens, all the while, helping Americans receive compensation for lost properties," said James Williams, the group's president. "This compromise is the result of 10 months of tireless leadership from Congressman Crawford, who has been acting in good faith based on assurances that South Florida members would work together to reach an acceptable deal. If these members are unwilling to support this true compromise, it's unclear whether they ever intended to reach a deal, or if they were just misleading American farmers."
But John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said Crawford's legislation is mathematically unsound.
The 2 percent fee wouldn't raise enough money to pay down any of the $8 billion debt, he said. It wouldn't even cover the interest on the debt, he added.
On top of that, it would provide Havana with additional credit at a time when Cuba's economy is imperiled, he said.
Said Kavulich: "This is just a horrible mess of a piece of legislation."