HAVANA - Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, didn't waste any time. He traveled to Cuba right after voters re-elected the military veteran to his fifth term representing Arkansas' 1st District -- the largest rice-growing district in the country.
Crawford, 52, was among the Americans with the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba, or USACC, who were in Havana on Thursday to participate in a three-day conference aiming to increase trade with Cuba. They will remain there until Saturday.
Since former President Barack Obama allowed agricultural sales, the U.S. private sector has sold $5.7 billion in food to Cuba, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. Crawford wants the U.S. embargo, which Congress imposed in 1961, out of the way.
"I believe we are closer than we have ever been," Crawford said.
There is plenty of opportunity. According to the World Food Bank, Cuba imports between 70 to 80 percent of its domestic food requirements. The top imports are poultry, corn, wheat and soybeans and most of the food is coming from China, Spain, Italy, Argentina and Mexico, according to economic data.
Last year, Crawford was in discussions with U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo about legislation to attach an excise tax on some agricultural exports to Cuba. Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell unseated Curbelo on Tuesday.
With the Democrats in control of the House, Crawford wants to reintroduce the bill, which would also lift the credit restriction to allow U.S. entities to engage in credit transactions.
Crawford believes in his mission. Arkansas was a major exporter of rice to Cuba before Fidel Castro took power. The Arkansas Rice Growers Association and the Arkansas Farm Bureau are members of the USACC.
Crawford, who serves on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, also serves on the House Agriculture and Transportation and Infrastructure committees, and he co-founded the Congressional Rice Caucus and the Congressional Chicken Caucus.
The Republican talked to President Donald Trump and said he was interested in the bill.
"The president is all about expanding trade opportunities and this is certainly good for rural America," Crawford said. "And I think he recognizes opportunities when he sees it."
Cuban government critics in Congress, like Sen. Marco Rubio, say they are not opposed to American farmers offering their products to a market. They are opposed to spending taxpayer's money on Cuban properties owned by the Cuban military.
"It's entirely possible there a lot of Democratic co-sponsors on this bill," Crawford said. "They could introduce that. And if they do, the appetite for this is much greater in the Senate than it has been in the House."
During the first day of the conference, Jose Miguel Rodriguez de Armas, Cuba's deputy agriculture minister, talked about the important role agriculture plays in the development of the island's economy. He said nonstate cooperatives are now producing almost 80 percent of the domestic output.
"Our country finds itself fully updating its economic model," De Armas said during the conference.
Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel comes into power as the Communist Party leader Raul Castro deals with a cash crunch.
China, Cuba's first trading partner, reported Cuba's payment problems last year. If the U.S. agribusiness is able to offer credit, this could present an opportunity for Cuban officials who also need food imports to fuel the island's growing tourism industry.
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