The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Obama loosens Cuban travel rules

The White House announced late today that President Obama has directed the Secretaries of State, Treasury, and Homeland Security to take a series of steps to ease American travel to Cuba.

The new rules will allow religious organizations to sponsor religious travel to Cuba, make educational and academic exchanges easier, and make it easier for Cuban Americans to see their families in Cuba and send money to people outside their families. “The president believes these actions, combined with the continuation of the embargo, are important steps in reaching the widely shared goal of a Cuba that respects the basic rights of all its citizens,” the White House statement said.

The announcement did not include any changes to the rules surrounding the financing of U.S. agricultural exports that were included in a bill that passed the House Agriculture Committee last year. The rules would have both ended the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba and permanently eased U.S. rules on financial arrangements for the sale of agricultural products to Cuba. But allowing more American travel to Cuba could increase demand for U.S. agricultural products there, as travelers would be likely to ask for American-style food in Cuban hotels. The new rules would also more U.S. airports to offer flights to Cuba, which could make it easier for American farmers and agribusiness officials to travel there to sell U.S. farm products.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., a longtime advocate of easing sales of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba, praised Obama’s action.

“People-to-people programs enable American citizens to be our best possible ambassadors to the Cuban people,” Emerson said. “They get to see firsthand what life is like in a free society and hear from Americans who live an existence very different from their own. These relationships help improve relations, strengthen our international understanding, and benefit trade opportunities for U.S. products in a significant market. The new rules will also help Cubans and Cuban-Americans on a family level, permitting direct financial support to the Cuban people, fostering commerce, and increasing the number of U.S. airports which will provide service to Cuba.”

Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas praised the announcement, saying “At a time when Cubans are changing their system in fundamental ways, it is a good idea to have greater engagement, more Americans traveling to Cuba, and more opportunities to learn from each other as everyday Cubans reshape their lives and their country. It is my hope that members of Congress who represent Cuban Americans — a community that can travel to Cuba without any limits at all — will not make efforts to thwart what the president has done. This step authorizing non-tourist travel is a basic and positive step to take at this time. We will continue to press for the freedom to travel to Cuba for all Americans.”

Neither the House Foreign Affairs Committee nor the full House took up the House Agriculture Committee-passed bill last year. Rep. Ileana Ros Lehtinen, R-Fla., is a Cuban-American who has opposed any easing of U.S. relations with Cuba as long as the Castro government is in power.