Saturday, May 20, 2017

Private credit for Cuba on table

Private credit for Cuba on table
Bill would ease agriculture trade
By Frank E. Lockwood

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said he wants to
remove barriers to trade with Cuba, telling a House committee this week:
"If our folks grow it, I want to sell it."

Current U.S. law prevents American farmers from extending credit to
Cuban purchasers. U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, a Jonesboro Republican who
represents much of eastern Arkansas, has introduced legislation that
would remove the restrictions on private loans.

This week, Crawford lobbied for the bill on Capitol Hill and at the
White House.

During a meeting of the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday,
Crawford asked Perdue to back H.R. 525, the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act.

"I think that's something I would be supportive of if folks around the
world need private credit to buy our products, and I'm all for that,"
Perdue told Crawford and the other committee members. "I probably would
have some personal concern if we were doing public credit to the nation
of Cuba."

Crawford, who represents the nation's top rice-producing district, said
he shared that view. "That is strictly a private transaction with no
taxpayer public backstop and I think that is important to note," he replied.

Supporters of U.S.-Cuban trade welcomed the statement from a member of
President Donald Trump's cabinet.

One day later, Crawford and three of H.R. 525's co-sponsors met with
White House officials who are helping to craft the Trump
administration's Cuba policy.

"It was a high-level meeting," Crawford said in an interview Friday,
calling it a "very positive" discussion.

"I can't speak for the administration, but I get the sense that there is
a feeling there that this vestige of the Cold War needs to go away and
we need to play an active role in shaping the future of Cuba," he said.

Prior to the Cuban revolution, the U.S. was a major supplier of rice to
the island. But the trade ended after the rise of Cuban dictator Fidel
Castro and the nation's embrace of communism.

With a U.S. trade embargo in place, Havana turned to other nations for
rice imports.

Restrictions on the sale of medication and agricultural products were
rolled back in 2000, and by 2004 U.S. rice sales had climbed to $64
million. The exports ended, however, after the U.S. government barred
farmers from extending credit to Cuban purchasers.

Since fiscal 2009, Cuba has opted not to buy any U.S. rice. Most of its
rice imports are from Vietnam and Brazil.

The country is buying U.S. chicken, however. The U.S. is "the lead
supplier" of poultry -- mostly frozen chicken leg quarters -- according
to the United States International Trade Commission. Easing the
restrictions could lead to modest growth for U.S. chicken exports, the
agency said.

If the trade barriers on rice are removed, the two states that would
benefit most are Arkansas and Louisiana, the trade commission stated in
its March 2016 analysis.

After more than a half-century of economic sanctions, it's clear that
the economic embargo isn't working, Crawford said.

"I think it's just time to take a different look, take a different
approach," he said.

Crawford said he's hopeful that his legislation, which has 38
co-sponsors, will advance.

It helps to have Perdue's backing, Crawford said.

"He's an influential voice in the Cabinet so I think we're very well
positioned to get the kind of support we need from the administration to
move forward," he said.

Similar legislation, on the Senate side, has the backing of Arkansas'
U.S. Sen. John Boozman.

The Republican from Rogers is an original co-sponsor of the Agricultural
Export Expansion Act of 2017, which also would allow U.S. businesses to
extend credit to Cuban purchasers of agricultural commodities.

James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, said Perdue's statements give
Crawford's bill "a big boost" and "should make this move a lot quicker
through Congress.

"We're sort of at a breakthrough moment for this legislation," he said.

Speaking to the Economic Equality Caucus Conference in Washington on
Thursday, U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said supporters of trade with
Cuba appear to have the momentum.

Although he opposes efforts to relax the restrictions, "You are winning
the argument and I'm losing it and I'm losing it gracefully," he told
the audience. "I think I see the handwriting on the wall."

Business on 05/20/2017

Source: Private credit for Cuba on table -

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