Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    US House may pass Cuba farm export bill in April

    US House may pass Cuba farm export bill in April
    Published on Thursday, April 1, 2010
    By Jonathan J. Levin

    WASHINGTON, USA (Bloomberg) — The US House of Representatives may pass a bill next month that would ease restrictions on agricultural exports to Cuba and lift a ban on to the Communist 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 approve the legislation. He expects to secure that pledge after Congress’s Easter recess, and for the measure to then get approval by the full House.

    “Cuba used to be one of our big markets,” Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. The bill “would help us get those markets back.”

    The US International Trade Commission estimates the US 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 US farmers go through a bank located in a third country and be made all in cash, steps that make trade more difficult.

    The US exported $528.5 million in and agricultural products to Cuba in 2009, according to the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

    Peterson’s bill, known as the “Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act,” is the latest House legislation seeking to end a 47-year prohibition on Americans traveling to Cuba. The “ 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.”

    Proposals to end travel restrictions to Cuba may lack the support needed to pass as a stand-alone bill in the Senate, said Senator Byron Dorgan, who introduced the Senate version of the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act.”

    Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota, said he will seek to move the legislation by attaching it as an amendment to another bill more likely to get the 60 votes needed block a filibuster, he said today in a telephone interview from Bismarck, North Dakota.

    President Barack Obama said March 24 that he’s seeking a “new era” in relations with Cuba even as he denounced “deeply disturbing” 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 on the island. The US State Department has also held talks in 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 Minister Manuel Marrero said in a March 25 interview in Cancun, Mexico. He said the local 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 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.

    Dorgan said the arrest of American Alan last December in Havana may be an impediment to lifting the travel ban, and called on Cuban officials to free the .

    Gross, a US State Department contractor, is accused of working as a spy after he distributed cellular phones and computers to Jewish groups on the island to help them communicate with friends and relatives outside Cuba. Gross’s wife, Judy Gross, said her husband had done “nothing wrong,” according to a video statement reproduced on CNN’s Web site.

    “Over the years, as we get close to achieving something, the Cubans have a way of poking Americans in the eye,” Dorgan said.”