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Opponents of Cuba Embargo Poised for a Win

Advocates who want more U.S. travel and trade with Cuba are predicting victory today. The House Agriculture Committee is expected to pass legislation that would expand crop exports and lift a ban on travel to Cuba.

It’s the first step before the measure can be approved by the full House.

Agriculture entities such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, American Soybean Association and National Corn Growers Association along with retired military officers in the National Security Network and pro-trade groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been pressing for such a measure for years.

And House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson says he has worked over the past month to secure the votes needed for passage.

“This bill has been needed for a long time, and I expect the committee to report out the bill,” the Minnesota Democrat said Tuesday.

Peterson’s bill is just the latest attempt by House Members to end the nearly 50-year prohibition on almost all American travel to Cuba. The embargo was put in place in the 1960s to pressure Fidel Castro’s government and spur democracy in the island country. Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) has introduced a similar bill without the agriculture provisions.

The chamber’s John Murphy called the legislation’s path “the journey of a thousand miles.”

The chamber has long opposed the trade embargo with Cuba because it says it is a self-defeating policy.

“The reality is that Cuba is miserable, poor and unfree because of a half-century of Marxist mismanagement,” Murphy said. “We believe the embargo allows Castro to blame Washington for all of the Cuban people’s problems. We want to take away that pretext.”

Agriculture groups such as the National Corn Growers Association are supporting the bill because it would likely increase the amount of exports to Cuba. While corn is already exported there, the group expects the agriculture provisions in the bill to increase the amount of ethanol and other exports, such as poultry, to the country.

“We’ve long had a policy trying to increase our trade with Cuba,” the NCGA’s DaNita Murray said. She added that some agriculture-producing states have been working on this issue for a decade.

Not everybody is hoping Peterson’s prediction of passage is accurate. The U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, which supports the embargo, has been lobbying hard against the measure.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the group, said the decision to move legislation in the Agriculture panel instead of the Foreign Affairs Committee is subverting the normal legislative process.

“The whole travel portion will not have committee consideration,” Claver-Carone said. “This leads us to a pretty dangerous state. It’s the first step to completely diminishing the power and the role of the Foreign Affairs Committee, allowing other committees to conduct foreign policy.”

Claver-Carone sent an e-mail blast last week after nearly 500 pro-democracy leaders from within Cuba sent a letter to Peterson opposing the legislation.

“The cause of liberty, and firm opposition to the oppressive totalitarian dictatorship in Havana, is so sacred that it is above all economic and mercantilist interests,” wrote the Cubans, including several former political prisoners.

The U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC already this election cycle has contributed more than $455,000 to Members who support their efforts, including contributing $5,000 to Florida Democratic Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Kendrick Meek. Peterson is not among the recipients of the PAC’s campaign dollars.

Proponents of the bill say U.S.-Cuba PAC’s tactics aren’t going to work.

“This is not about campaign contributions,” said David Jones of Capitol Counsel. “It’s about whether or not our farmers and ranchers are going to be able to open a new agriculture market in Cuba.”

Jones is lobbying on the provision for Vigilant Worldwide Communications, which works with Utah-based agriculture entities.

Despite the measure’s expected success today, its path forward in the House and Senate is unclear. There are several hard-liners opposed to weakening the embargo, including Wasserman Schultz and Meek as well as Reps. Albio Sires (D-N.J.), Florida Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.).

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