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With U.S.-Cuba Ties Restored, Embargo Leaves Trade Restrictions In Place


Now that the U.S. and Cuba have restored diplomatic relations, there are many farmers and CEOs in this country who want to know whether trade will be next. Cuba's economy has been hobbled by the half-century old U.S. trade embargo, and Americans have also been unable to tap into a potential dynamic market. President Obama has started paving the way to change that. Here's NPR's Jackie Northam with more.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Doug Keesling, a Kansas farmer, says at one time, he understood why the U.S. had a trade embargo against Cuba. I caught up with Keesling by cellphone as he moved cattle across drought-ridden Central Kansas. He says nowadays, he thinks Cuba would be a good market to sell his corn, soy and especially wheat.

DOUG KEESLING: Ten percent of all of the wheat grown in Kansas is how much Cuba needs. So when you're talking about 10 percent of your supply chain that could be going to someone that's 90 miles away, it's very exciting.

NORTHAM: Under existing law, U.S. companies have been able to export limited amounts of agricultural products for humanitarian reasons. Keesling never did because the rules and regulations were stringent and complicated. Keesling was pleased when President Obama announced in December he would ease some travel and trade restrictions. This would allow U.S. companies to export construction and telecommunications equipment to Cuba's growing private sector and make it easier to export agricultural products.

KEESLING: We just finished wheat harvest in Kansas over the last couple weeks. And so if we could finalize these final details fairly soon, wheat from my farm and others in central Kansas could end up in Cuba by fall.

NORTHAM: The sweeping changes are part of President Obama's efforts to end the isolation between the U.S. and Cuba. And it's an enormous first step for companies to enter a new market, says Bill Lane, a director at construction equipment giant, Caterpillar.

BILL LANE: The president's decision has sort of opened the way for the ability to do some reconnaissance in Cuba, to get to know the territory, to get to better understand the market, start making some people-to-people contacts.

NORTHAM: But Lane says to fully normalize trade relations with Cuba, the embargo needs to be lifted, and only Congress can do that. Lane says he's been regularly meeting members of Congress to make the case. In the meantime, the competition is heading to Cuba, says Susan Segal, president of Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

SUSAN SEGAL: The number of Spanish, Canadian, Latin American companies that are traveling to Cuba today to get there before the Americans totally lift the restrictions and can go and invest is incredible.

NORTHAM: But it's unlikely Congress will lift the embargo any time soon, says Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida.


MARIO DIAZ-BALART: If anyone thinks that the sanctions are going away, that the so-called embargo is going to go away, they have not been paying attention to the attitude of Congress. Congress, unlike President Obama, understands that the Castro regime are the oppressors. They are not the Cuban people.

NORTHAM: In the meantime, president Obama can continue to use his executive authority to further normalize relations. But John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, says he may wait to see what the Cubans will do.

JOHN KAVULICH: They have benefited exponentially and breathtakingly from what President Obama has done. Governments are providing them with credits, and companies that weren't interested in dealing with them now are. The Cuban government thus far, other than allowing more visitors into Cuba, hasn't done anything.

NORTHAM: At the moment, tourism is one of Cuba's major sources of income. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.