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Under Secretary Michael Scuse of the U.S. Department of Agriculture tells a Cuban summit on Monday, Feb. 23, 2015, in St. Paul that restoring normal trade relations with Cuba is "very important" to American farmers. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Ag summit focuses on Cuba relations

ST. PAUL -- A "farmer" who plants seeds the same way for years and they do not grow, "you probably are not a farmer," Cargill Inc. Vice President Devry Boughner Vorwerk told a Monday summit on restoring relations with Cuba.

That was her description about how the United States has dealt with Cuba, with a 53-year-old trade embargo. She said the time has come for a change so both countries can progress.

"Cuba is a natural market for us," Vorwerk said, but regulations in both countries are making it tough to trade.

"We can do it faster, cheaper, better and with higher quality," she said of sending American products to the island country 90 miles south of Florida.

The embargo has been "very hurtful" to Cubans, added Rodolfo Gutierrez of the Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment through Research organization.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., hosted the summit on the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus, bringing together the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hispanic advocates, agriculture experts and others with an interest in Cuba trade.

Klobuchar, who returned from a Cuba trip a week ago, is chief sponsor of a Senate bill to allow trade to resume with Cuba. She also is co-sponsor of a measure to eliminate travel restrictions.

Many Cubans are eager to trade with the United States, the senator said.

During her trip, "every Cuban I met remembered one date, Dec. 17, 2014," she said, the day President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced movement toward a more normal relationship between the countries. The U.S. Congress must take action to make any major trade or other changes.

Klobuchar said people knew her face and name throughout the Cuba trip because she authored the bill to normalize trade relations.

"It was all over the news that I was carrying the bill to lift the embargo," Klobuchar said.

Under Secretary Michael Scuse of the U.S. Department of Agriculture told the summit that Cuba trade is of "huge importance" for agriculture, but Obama needs congressional help.

"We have reached the point where the president has done everything he can," Scuse said.

The United States was Cuba's dominant trading partner before the embargo was imposed, the under secretary said, and could regain much of that if the embargo disappears.

Federal law bans Scuse's agency and others throughout government from helping businesses prepare for exporting to Cuba. While there is an embargo, several hundred millions of dollars' worth of agricultural products are sent to Cuba annually under an exemption for selling goods for humanitarian reasons.

Even with the embargo, Cuba is the eighth largest foreign market for American poultry.

Scuse gave those at the summit a warning that Cuba is a "small, limited-income country," although Vorwerk reminded those attending that there still are 11 million people there, many of whom would like American goods.

Vorwerk said that the Cuban government laid off 600,000 government workers, and officials know it needs to find jobs for them. Opening American trade could help that, she added.

Minnesota has a surprisingly strong connection with Cuba, Gutierrez said. The number of Cubans in the state has grown since the 1950s to about 5,000.

"They are coming here for jobs," he said, and for the most part they are better educated than other immigrants.

Farmer Ralph Kaehler of St. Charles, in southeastern Minnesota, has been to Cuba about 20 times, organizing beef, dairy cow and other exports.

One of the problems, Kaehler said, is what even when he can ship products to Cuba, nothing is allowed on the ships when they return to the United States. That greatly increases transportation costs.

Klobuchar said that her bill opening trade eventually will pass, but she could not predict when. She agreed with other assessments that if debate drags into the 2016 presidential election, chances for its quick passage will slip.

Opposition remains in both counties.

"There is still a lot of anti-American talk going on in the government," she said about Cuba, and she is working with Senate Republicans to get them to back her bill.