A bipartisan group of senators and representatives has introduced legislation that would lift the current U.S. ban on travel to Cuba, easing the way for more Americans, including farmers and ranchers, to try to do business on the island.

The legislation, the “Promoting American Agricultural and Medical Exports to Cuba Act of 2007, would also end Treasury Department rules that complicate the sale of U.S. agricultural products and require USDA to promote sales of those commodities to Cuba.

“The Cuban economy continues to grow despite the U.S. embargo, and American exporters are forced to sit idly by while Chinese and Canadian companies take advantage of opportunities in our backyard,” said Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

“Outdated, unnecessary, and overzealous restrictions are putting Americans, not Fidel Castro, at disadvantage. This legislation does not lift the embargo, but it is an important first step toward modernizing our Cuba policy and improving the economic competitiveness of American ranchers and farmers.”

Baucus, the author of several previous attempts to ease restrictions on trade with Cuba, was joined by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., in introducing the legislation.

Rangel said the current policy regarding Cuba has been broken for a long time and hurts no one but Americans who are being denied their right to travel and to compete for business with representatives of other countries that have enjoyed unrestricted travel to Cuba for decades.

“Unfortunately, Idaho products have made up very little of the $1.5 billion in U.S. agriculture exports to Cuba since the initial easing of trade restrictions,” said Crapo. “That is due to the continued difficulty and additional obstacles that have been placed on exporting to the country.

“Cuba represents an important opportunity for agricultural exports, and fuller U.S. engagement in Cuba is essential to bring positive change in the country. Our legislation will ensure that unnecessary government regulations do not hinder that progress.”

Emerson said the “backwards” American policy on Cuba is harming U.S. farmers and ranchers considerably more than it hurts Castro.

“When we consider our relationships with China, with Venezuela, and with Iran and compare them to Cuba, it’s clear that we are holding the Cuban people to an unreasonable standard,” she said.

U.S. citizens can travel to Cuba through third countries, but they risk arrest and imprisonment on their return to the United States if they are not traveling on licenses granted by the Treasury Department.

The companion bills introduced June 21 overturn a 2005 Treasury Department rule that the authors say stifle nearly all the positive effects of Congress’s 2000 law allowing agricultural sales to Cuba. The Treasury regulations require shipments to be paid for in full before leaving U.S. ports.

Before the rule, U.S. agriculture sales to Cuba were approaching $1 billion. Now that foreign letters of credit are the primary way Cuban importers may pay for U.S. goods, agricultural exports to Cuba have dropped by nearly 15 percent and no cash basis sales have taken place.

The bills lift all restrictions on travel to Cuba. Current law only allows limited travel by Cuban-Americans, religious groups, and academics. All such travel has been severely curtailed by the Treasury Department since 2004.

The bills also allow Cuban buyers to make payments directly to American exporters, eliminating excess fees charged by intermediary foreign banks. They require and provide funds to the USDA to promote U.S. exports to Cuba, and to offer technical assistance to American producers interested in such sales.

The bills also encourage the State Department to issue visas to trade and veterinary officials wishing to inspect American processing facilities and to make purchases, a provision particularly important to small exporters who cannot afford frequent travel to the island.

In addition to making agricultural trade cheaper and easier for U.S. exporters, the bills will lift a rule that requires exporters to physically verify receipt of allowable medicines and medical equipment onsite in Cuba – a restriction not placed on medical exports to countries like North Korea and Iran.

The American Farm Bureau Federation said it was supporting the legislation to remove “costly barriers” to U.S. trade with Cuba. “AFBF will continue its work with Congress to pass legislation to eliminate these restrictions,” said its president, Bob Stallman. “Such restrictions adversely affect markets and are an inappropriate tool for the implementation of foreign policy.”

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