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Midwestern farmers push for Cuban markets

WASHINGTON - Nearly a decade after then-Gov. Jesse Ventura met with Fidel Castro in Cuba, a new wave of Minnesota politicians is leading efforts to end travel and trade restrictions with the communist island nation.

Much like Ventura's 2002 Havana trade mission, the political muscle is being provided by Midwestern farmers and agricultural interests in search of new markets for exports.

"It's a very promising market," said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the sponsor of a bill that would cut through the red tape farmers face in trying to sell food to the nation of 11 million people.

Similar legislation was introduced last week by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, another Minnesota Democrat. "American farmers can greatly benefit from access to new markets in Cuba at a time when our economy needs it most," she said.

The legislation is aimed mostly at U.S. farm exports to Cuba, which have tripled since they were first allowed in 2001, hitting a record $710 million in 2008.

Some restrictions remain, however, that make the sales cumbersome. The legislation is aimed mostly at lifting those restrictions. But its quantum leap would be ending the ban on travel to Cuba, which was a popular casino playground for American gangsters, celebrities and tourists right up until the final hours of the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

Though likely to be the most controversial part of the legislative initiative, farm groups say that ending the ban would foster tourism, helping Cubans generate the cash they need to buy more U.S. exports.

But even if the new bills expanded trade and travel, there is one door that would remain firmly shut: the decades-old U.S. trade embargo that prohibits imports from Cuba, including the island's rum and famed Cohiba cigars.

Nor would it end the credit ban that forces the Cuban government to pay cash up front for food sales.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Source: Star Tribune

Midwestern farmers push for Cuban markets