Weekly Columns

In recent months, President Obama has announced steps toward restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba. He has called on Congress to, among other things, relax travel and trade restrictions with the Caribbean nation.   

The President is doing the right thing by pushing to normalize relations with Cuba. Since my time in the U.S. House of Representatives, I have been supportive of efforts to end the embargo of U.S. agriculture exports to Cuba, relax the travel ban and loosen monetary restrictions.

While there were good intentions behind our isolation policy toward Cuba, it simply has not worked. We’ve run the same play over and over again for fifty years and the results have not changed. It’s time to try something else.

One easy place to start would be end restrictions on travel to Cuba unfairly imposed on American citizens and legal residents. That is why I joined a bipartisan group of senators to introduce the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015

I really do believe that the way you change the world is through personal relationships. If we are serious about bringing real change to Cuba, we need to expose the Cuban people to our democratic ideals. That clearly hasn’t been accomplished with this travel ban in place. It’s outdated, inconsistent and lifting it would be a good first step toward overall reform.

But we need to go further and normalize trade relations with Cuba as well. That is why I have been a long-time supporter of efforts to not only relax the travel ban, but end the trade embargo with Cuba as well.

As a first step in that direction, Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and I introduced a bipartisan bill to increase the export of American agricultural commodities to Cuba. 

The number one barrier that farmers in Arkansas have faced when trying to export to Cuba is that lenders are prohibited from providing lines of credit to export goods to the country. Terry Harris, the Senior Vice President of Marketing and Risk Management at Stuttgart-based Riceland Foods, recently testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee and told us that in order for American agricultural producers to compete in Cuba, this major barrier needs to be removed. 

Our bill, the Agricultural Export Expansion Act, would lift the ban on private banks and companies from offering credit for agricultural exports to Cuba, and help level the playing field for U.S. farmers and exporters. 

Rice and poultry are staples of the Cuban diet. Prior to the embargo, Arkansas was able to compete in that market. Now, Cuba turns to countries like Vietnam for these commodities, which is significant as Cuba imports 80% of its food. Passage of our bill would re-open the Cuban market to Arkansas farmers at no cost to the taxpayers. Private lenders would assume all the risk.

It is far more effective to have an open line of communication and a working relationship with governments in need of democratic assistance, rather than shut them out. In normalizing trade relations, you not only trade goods, but ideas. The two go hand-in-hand. Normalizing relations will allow us to remain competitive and create jobs at home, while pushing for human rights and democratic change in Cuba.