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Heitkamp: Returning from Cuba: Trade benefits Cuban people, North Dakota

WASHINGTON — Last week as I walked around Havana, Cuba, as part of the president’s historic trip to the country — the first by a sitting U.S. president in almost 90 years — I kept running into Cubans who had met North Dakotans before.

It was incredibly telling.

Not only did it reinforce that North Dakotans make friends wherever they travel — it also highlighted how many North Dakotans have visited Cuba, and that Cubans know our state grows some of the best agricultural products in the world. Increasingly, Cuban restaurant and small business owners want access to those crops.

After returning from Cuba, I’m hopeful we’re one step closer to expanding U.S. agricultural exports to a market 90 miles from our shores. This trip built momentum for such changes, following up on my official U.S. Senate trip to Cuba in 2014 when I met with agricultural leaders and pushed for North Dakota products. All of this builds support for my bill to help export American agricultural products to Cuba.

Attending the state dinner, the president’s speech to the Cuban people, and a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team — along with many other meetings with U.S. and Cuban leaders — emphasized that Americans and the Cuban people have much in common.

North Dakota farmers would benefit from increased trade, and so would the Cuban people. More dialogue and engagement translates into more leverage to improve human rights for the Cuban people.

As one Cuban-American business leader who had previously fought against easing the embargo said on the trip: “It’s time that we stop fighting and start cooperating.”

Meeting political dissidents and Cuban entrepreneurs — like young restaurant owners hungry to buy North Dakota food products — I saw firsthand how expanding trade could boost emerging small businesses and improve the lives of average Cubans, while also supporting North Dakota farmers who grow lentils, beans, and peas — key foods in the Cuban diet. My hope is that, via trade and people-to-people contact, we can create brighter futures for both Cuba and the U.S.

This trip was just a few days in the United States’ relationship with Cuba, but these were important days. After meeting with U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack while in Cuba, the agency announced it agreed to my request to allow federal checkoff programs  —  which market American commodities  —  to use producer-generated funds promoting our products in Cuba.

This is a change I’ve long pushed for, first at a Senate hearing in April of last year. Now, I’ll keep pushing to open up trade with my bill to ease financing restrictions on U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba.

North Dakota farmers have told me this is their biggest barrier, and my bill would work to remove it.

Promoting trade to Cuba should in no way obscure Cuba’s very real human rights challenges. In fact, trade should have the opposite effect  —  it should encourage Cuba to improve and become a freer society.

When I spoke with Cuban President Raul Castro at the United Nations in New York last year to promote North Dakota agriculture, he asked me what Cuba could do to encourage the U.S. to lift the 50-year embargo on trade to his country.

My response was simple: Improve human rights in Cuba.

In Cuba this week, we were able to meet with political dissidents. Expanding trade and the free flow of ideas will only expand human rights in Cuba, as enhanced engagement with other countries has spread free speech and democracy across the globe.

After a 50-year embargo, little has changed in Cuba.

It’s time that we give trade and dialogue a chance, as we began to do on this trip.

Heitkamp is a Democrat representing North Dakota in the U.S. Senate. Contact her at heitkamp.senate.gov.