Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and 15 other senators are trying once again to break the stranglehold of Florida politics on agricultural trade with Cuba by passing legislation that would loosen the decades-old U.S. embargo.

Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, introduced S-1089, the Promoting American Agriculture and Medical Exports to Cuba Act of 2009. A similar bill, H.R. 1531, was introduced in the House March 16.

Farm organizations have been working with Baucus and other senators and House members to try to clear a path for the legislation, which would allow trading company representatives to travel freely between the U.S. and Cuba and eliminate “payment-in-advance” rules for shipments of rice, wheat and other commodities to the island nation.

“This bill is not only necessary and timely, but addresses issues that are at the very core of rice industry efforts to remove the onerous Bush administration restrictions imposed in 2005,”USA Rice Federation Chairman Jamie Warshaw said in a press release.

Cuba was once the largest foreign market for U.S. rice. The Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 allowed rice and other industries to resume shipments of their commodities to Cuba, and U.S. merchants have sold as much as 800,000 metric tons of rice per year since then. But the Bush administration’s re-interpretation of the payment-in-advance language of the Trade Sanctions and Reform Act in 2005 led to sharply curtailed sales. The administration, which owed its election to electoral votes cast in Florida in 2000, ruled that Cuba must pay for shipments before they could leave U.S. ports.

The Baucus bill would:

• Authorize direct fund transfers between U.S. and Cuban banks for agricultural exports; • Establish a USDA program to provide technical and promotional assistance for marketing U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba; • Establish a “sense of the Congress” resolution that the Secretary of State should issue visas to Cuban officials to conduct activities related to the purchase of agricultural commodities.

The U.S. government placed an embargo on trade with Cuba shortly after Fidel Castro took power in January, 1959. Although Castro has been ill and reportedly has turned the running of the country over to his brother, he has now outlasted 11 U.S. presidents.

Despite its total lack of success, anti-Castro advocates in Congress continue to work to block attempts to weaken the embargo. In March, Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Bill Nelson, D-Fla., threatened to vote against an omnibus spending bill because of a provision allowing increased travel to Cuba.

Officials with the USA Rice Federation say the Bush administration’s interpretation of payment-in-advance rules in 2005 caused shipments of rice and other commodities to Cuba to drop almost to zero.

“While we continue to urge Congress and the administration to lift the embargo, the bill would allow rice producers, millers, merchants and allied industries to reclaim the costly ground lost over the last four years,” said Warshaw.

“Prior to the U.S. embargo, Cuba was the largest market for U.S. rice,” he noted. “Were the provisions in today’s bill to become law, we would be well on our way to that position again. U.S. proximity to Cuba makes us natural trading partners and offers the Cuban people the opportunity to receive high-quality rice we know they want, at an affordable cost.”

The bill’s co-sponsors include Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Pat Roberts, R-Kan.; Mary Landrieu, D-La.; Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.; Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Mark Pryor, D-Ark.; Christopher “Kit” Bond, R-Mo.; Tim Johnson, D-S.D.; Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Richard Lugar, R-Ind.; and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

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