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Nixon Joins Bipartisan Coalition Looking To Expand Trade To Cuba

Jim Howard | St. Louis Public Radio

Gov. Jay Nixon was in Washington Thursday to join with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, business leaders and representatives from more than 30 agricultural trade associations to push for normalized relations and greater trade with Cuba.

The public launch of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition on Cuba comes less than a month after President Barack Obama announced plans to establish normal diplomatic relations with the island country. 

“Right now, when it comes to Cuba, we’re not on a level playing field,” Nixon said, in comments during a news conference presented by the coalition. 

“Because of current sanctions, American producers can only interact with Cuba through a complicated process that greatly limits our abilities to sell goods, stifles our ability to create more jobs and prevents us from bring more dollars home to the U.S.A.,” Nixon added.

Currently, Cuba must pay cash in advance through a third party to purchase U.S. goods. U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., negotiated the “cash up front” requirement to protect U.S. businesses trading with Cuba. The Obama administration hopes to ease financial obstacles slowing trade between the two countries. 

Blunt says he does not agree with normalizing relations with Cuba as long as Raul and Fidel Castro remain in power. At the time of Obama’s announcement, Blunt said he just didn’t think the “Castro brothers” would really allow U.S. values to sweep across Cuba.

Several Republicans in Congress who oppose Obama’s plan have said they would work to block funding for a U.S. embassy in Havana.

Nixon sees it differently. 

“Now is the time for Congress to follow through and remove these financial restrictions, lift the embargo and do away with the self-imposed barriers that are holding us back.” 

Given the opportunity to compete, “Missouri farmers and ranchers and American farmers and ranchers feel like we can win against anyone," continued Nixon. "And we know that the more Missouri goods that we sell overseas, the more good jobs that we’ll create back at home.”

Nixon said,  “We cannot ignore 11 million customers 90 miles from our country,” and he noted that other countries are “stepping up to fill the void and take advantage of America’s limited role.” 

Coalition organizers and all of the speakers, including both Republican and Democratic members of Congress, emphasized the bipartisan makeup of the coalition. 

Credit U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis' website
U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, who traveled to Cuba in 2005 as a staffer for another member of Congress, supports lifting the embargo. 

“After 54 years, I think a new approach is needed and that’s why I stand here in favor of increasing trade relations with… the Cuban people.”  Davis, whose district stretches from the Mississippi River north of St. Louis to Champaign in eastern Illinois, said, “Agriculture makes my district’s economy run.”  

While David said he agrees with those in Congress who don’t want the “Castro regime to continue,” he added, “We just differ on how to go about doing that.” 

“I believe increasing the trade that we already have with the Cuban nation is going to allow America to invest in a Cuban economy that’s going to free the Cuban citizens from the conditions that they live under now.”

Devry Boughner Vorwerk, the coalition's chair and Cargill vice president, said the group hopes to advance a constructive dialogue on U.S.-Cuba relations.  “We will actively engage to end the long-standing embargo.  We will work with key stakeholders to build momentum that drives historical change.  We will take public platforms and explain the moral imperative of liberalizing trade between the two countries.”

Speaking with reporters after the news conference, Nixon said he sees agricultural trade as opening the door to other trade with Cuba. 

“There’s nothing like sitting down over a nice Kansas City strip, having a little bit of corn and rice to begin talking about automobiles and other things,”  he said, adding that Motor Trend recently listed three of the pickup trucks manufactured in Missouri as the top three pickup trucks this year. “Their cars look old down there… We’ll sell them some trucks, too.”

Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., announced that she intended to visit Cuba by the end of February. McCaskill said she was interested in evaluating Cuba as a potential market for Missouri's agricultural products.