HAVANA, Dec 18 (Reuters) - U.S. legislation funding $867 billion in food and agriculture programs scheduled to be signed by U.S. President Donald Trump this week includes Department of Agriculture funds to help American farmers promote their products in Communist-run Cuba.
The measure is the first approved by Congress related to heavily sanctioned Cuba in nearly two decades and represents a symbolic victory for the lobby favoring normalization of ties whose fortunes rose under former president Barack Obama and have crashed under Trump.
Congress first authorized agricultural sales to Cuba for cash in 2000.
The farm bill approved by both houses of Congress last week goes a step further by including Cuba for the first time in the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development program which help U.S. farmers offset the costs of overseas marketing, although it still does not provide credit for such sales.
“Now, we can interact with more levels of Cuban society including cooperatives, farmers, and end-users to do research and market our products,” Paul Johnson, Chair of the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba, said.
The coalition is made up of more than 100 soy-to-wheat farm and industry groups.
With close to $6 billion in sales to Cuba since 2000, U.S. agribusiness and farmers have pushed to normalize trade and win permission to sell food on credit in hopes of capturing more of Cuba’s nearly $2 billion annual purchases of food abroad.
Trump, in alliance with hard-line Cuban exiles, has promised to undo the fragile detente begun by his predecessor.
The administration has tightened travel regulations, forbidden doing business with or patronizing military-controlled Cuban entities and cut back on the negotiations begun by the Obama administration.
Under Trump, the State Department last year slashed staff at the newly opened U.S. Embassy in Havana and expelled 17 diplomats from Cuba’s Embassy in Washington after a series of still unexplained health incidents that affected 25 U.S. diplomats.
James Williams, President of Engage Cuba, an organization working to normalize relations with Cuba, said the measure was significant as it passed a Republican Congress, adding that he is hoping for progress on credit for food sales this year.
Before passage, Senator Marco Rubio tweaked the farm bill to ensure it would not benefit the Cuban military which operates a broad swath of businesses on the Caribbean island.
“Should it be found that taxpayer dollars are being used to benefit the military, appropriate action must be taken,” Rubio’s spokesperson Olivia Peres-Cubas said, responding to an e-mail query.
Despite the deteriorating political climate between the old Cold War foes, much of the economic thaw begun under Obama, from food sales to travel and communications, remains in place. That is in large part due to the political clout of agricultural groups whose membership often support the Republican Party.
“Agriculture does have an advantage despite the current political environment,” Johnson said. “The agriculture issue has bipartisan support, and the fact that food touches everyone’s life in Cuba rather than one sector or group of people.” (Reporting by Marc Frank Editing by James Dalgleish)