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Nixon Announces Missouri Trade Mission To Cuba; Durbin Moves To Lift U.S. Travel Ban

Ray Howze/St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon made it official Thursday when he announced that he'll be leading an agricultural trade mission to Cuba in March.

Last month, Nixon, a Democrat, ordered his Agriculture Department to explore trade opportunities with the island nation, following President Barack Obama's decision to normalize relations with the communist regime.  Nixon says Missouri's farmers and livestock owners have a lot to gain by doing business with Cuba.

"The best way to have an open and peaceful world is to feed people and meet people," Nixon said.  "This gives us an opportunity as a state right here in the heartland to be a leader on something that 30 or 40 years ago, people wouldn't have thought as possible, as recently as four or five years ago, people wouldn't have even really thought of."

Greg Yielding, president of the Missouri Rice Council, is also taking part in the trade mission.

"I have never been (to Cuba)," Yielding said, "but the U.S. Rice Producers Association's CEO has been down there many times.... They eat rice for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner; they eat rice all the time. When we go down there, those of y'all that go, we're going to eat a lot of rice."

Yielding added that Missouri already has a serious competitor for its rice.

"If it's not their own (rice), which is (in) very limited production right now, it's going to come from Brazil, and we don't need that," Yielding said.  "We need the opportunity to sell our product to someone 90 miles away."

Other groups taking part in the trade mission include the Missouri Forests Products Association, the Dairy Farmers of America, and the Missouri Farm Bureau.

"About 25 to 30 percent of the things we produce are exported one way or another," Hurst said.  "We're going to have access to a tremendous market of 11 million people...I think Cuba imports about 80 percent of their food needs, so it's a huge market for our Missouri producers."

The trade mission is scheduled from March 1-4.

Earlier this month, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., announced plans to visit Cuba before the end of February. She wants to evaluate Cuba as a potential market for agricultural produce.

And in Washington...

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including U.S. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has introduced legislation to lift all remaining travel restrictions that keep Americans from freely visiting Cuba.  

“We tried it for 50 years. We said if we closed the door on Cuba, Cuba would change," Durbin said. "We did not succeed in that policy. It’s time for a new policy."

Credit Jim Howard | St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. (r), announces legislation to lift the U.S. travel ban to Cuba.

Durbin said he doesn't expect Cuba to change immediately with freer travel, but he said more openness is bound to create change.

“We don’t have to set out to change Cuba as our No. 1 reason, but I think we’re going to see dramatic change in Cuba if there is more travel, exchange and business between our two countries,” said Durbin.

Since 2009, only Cuban-Americans have been able to travel unrestricted to the island.  Earlier this month, the White House eased travel restrictions somewhat, following President Barack Obama’s announcement last month that the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba.

U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., began his efforts to lift the travel ban about 15 years ago.  In the news conference announcing the bill’s introduction, he anticipated arguments from likely opponents.  “Some will say that we ought to receive something in exchange for this… we all need to remember that this is a sanction or prohibition on Americans, not Cubans.”

Flake says it is not reasonable to expect the Cuban government to react with a concession when the lifting of the travel ban would not be a concession on the part of the United States. 

“We’re simply saying that Americans should be allowed to have the right to travel wherever they would like to unless there’s a compelling national security reason,” said Flake.

One of the most outspoken critics of the president’s plan to normalize relations with Cuba is U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of the Senate leadership team.  Blunt is opposed to normalization as long as the “Castro brothers (Raul and Fidel) remain in power.”

While the White House can ease trade and travel restrictions, it will take an act of Congress to do away with those restrictions permanently.

The bill is the first piece of legislation related to Cuba, since the president’s announcement in December. And while it has bipartisan support and co-sponsors, it is not known whether the new majority Republican leadership in the Senate will allow the measure to come to a vote.
Follow Marshall Griffin and Jim Howard on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport  @jimhoward529

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.