JEFFERSON CITY - An unprecedented visit from the Cuban ambassador next week will put Missouri at the center of one of the hottest debates on Capitol Hill.
With the future of US-Cuba trade relations still pending in Congress, Missouri farmers are taking steps to establish their own relations with the sanctioned nation. The Missouri Farm Bureau will host Cuban ambassador Fernando Remirez next week. It will be Remirez's first ever visit to American farms.
But this isn't the first time Remirez has met with Missourians. In March, over 100 members of the Missouri Farm Bureau traveled to Washington, D.C. and met with him to discuss the future of US-Cuba trade relations and possibilities for a Missouri-Cuba trade relationship. This is just a continuation of that discussion, said Dan Cassidy, the Bureau's director of national legislative programs.
"We're really thrilled to have them in our state and show them how successful our producers are," Cassidy said. The ambassador will arrive in Missouri on Tuesday next week and spend Wednesday and Thursday touring a number of farms and processing plants in the bootheel, as well as the University of Missouri's Delta Research Center in Portageville.
The Farm Bureau had originally intended to host Remirez this summer, but the Elian Gonzalez controversy kept him busy in Washington. The delay has given the visit unexpected significance, due to the urgent debate on US-Cuba trade in Washington this month.
Congress has until October 6 to decide the final content of a US-Cuba trade bill. The bill would ease US sanctions on Cuba by reducing trade barriers and, most significatly for the farmers, allow agricultural exports to Cuba for the first time in almost 40 years.
While American farmers generally support the bill, there are a number of legislators who vehemently oppose easing sanctions against Cuba. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Rep. Tom Delay (R-Tex.) both argue that reducing sancitons would strengthen Castro's regime. The debate heated up on Tuesday during hearings led by the International Trade Commission.
"The fate of this bill is anybody's guess," said Chris Noun, spokesman for the American Farm Bureau.
So while the Missouri Farm Bureau did not plan for Remirez's visit to coincide with these final tense days of the legislative session, it could prove useful in the end. "If there's anything we can do to jumpstart the legislative process to end these sanctions against Cuba, then that's great," Cassidy said.
Both Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., and Congresswoman JoAnn Emerson, D-8th District, have been staunch supporters of loosening sanctions. They argue that the end of sanctions could open up significant trading opportunities for Missouri's farmers, specifically in rice, soy, and meat products. Before sanctions were imposed, Cuba was the United States' largest buyer of rice.