March 31, 2010, 7:37 AM EDT
By Jonathan J. Levin
March 31 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. House of Representatives may pass a bill next month that would cut restrictions on agricultural exports to Cuba and lift a ban on travel to the island, the measure’s sponsor said.
Congressman Collin Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, said he needs backing from one more lawmaker to assure the panel will pass the legislation. He expects to secure that pledge after Congress’s Easter recess, and for the measure to get approval by the full House.
“Cuba used to be one of our big markets,” Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat, said in a telephone interview yesterday. The bill “would help us get those markets back.”
The U.S. International Trade Commission estimates the U.S. could supply as much as two-thirds of Cuba’s agricultural imports, up from the current 30 percent, if restrictions are eased, Peterson said in a committee hearing this month. The bill would end a requirement that payments from Cuba to U.S. farmers go through a bank located in a third country and be made all in cash, steps that make trade more difficult.
The U.S. exported $528.5 million in food and agricultural products to Cuba in 2009, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Peterson’s bill, known as the “Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act,” [H.R. 4645] is the latest House legislation seeking to end a 47-year prohibition on Americans traveling to Cuba. The “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act,” sponsored by William Delahunt, Democrat from Massachusetts, would ease travel restrictions without changing rules about agricultural exports.
Versions of both bills are under consideration in the Senate.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to get the agriculture changes by themselves,” Peterson said. “There’s a lot of support for lifting the travel ban, and if you put that together with the agriculture, I think we have enough votes to get it through the House.”
The bill may face more opposition in the Senate, he said.
President Barack Obama said March 24 that he’s seeking a “new era” in relations with Cuba even as he denounced “deeply disturbing” human rights violations by its government. Obama hasn’t told congressional Democrats where he stands on ending the travel ban, according to Peterson.
Obama last year eased restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to Cuba and transferring money to relatives back home. The U.S. State Department has also held talks in Havana with Cuban officials about restoring mail service and cooperation on migration issues.
The island nation can handle an influx of American tourists if the bill is passed, Cuba’s Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero said in a March 25 interview in Cancun, Mexico. He said the local tourism industry is preparing, with at least 9 hotels scheduled to break ground by the end of this year.
Tourism to Cuba increased 3.5 percent last year to 2.4 million visitors, with 900,000 travelers from Canada leading the way, Jose Manuel Bisbe, commercial director for the Tourism Ministry, said in an interview last week in Havana.
Cuban Tourism Ministry officials were in Cancun last week to meet with U.S. tourism industry professionals.
--With assistance from Jens Erik Gould in Mexico City.
Editors: Brendan Walsh, Harry Maurer
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