By Marc Frank | Reuters

The U.S. International Trade Commission wrapped up a five-day visit to Cuba on Friday to gauge how Communist authorities might react if U.S. agriculture trade rules and travel restrictions were lifted.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Finances requested the independent government investigation on the effects on the U.S. economy of easing the restrictions on agricultural sales to the Caribbean island.
International Trade Commission economist Jonathan Coleman told Reuters it was helpful to “talk with food importers, tourism officials and others about if easing restrictions would lead to more U.S. agricultural imports and how Cuba might manage the influx of millions of U.S. tourists.”

U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba amounted to $337 million last year under a 2000 amendment to the long-standing trade embargo that allowed the heavily regulated exports for cash.

Cuba imported $1.8 billion in agricultural products in 2006.

U.S. sales have stagnated since the Bush administration tightened regulations two years ago.

Cuban officials say cumbersome regulations limit their purchases of U.S. food, and loosening travel restrictions would provide them with income to buy more to meet U.S. tourists’ tastes.

“We want to get all sides of the story. We already have talked to over 40 experts, exporters and key government agencies in the United States. So hearing the Cubans out makes sense,” said Coleman, one of two International Trade Commission experts who made the trip.

U.S. farm state politicians, agriculture trade groups, agribusinesses and farmers are pushing for a loosening of regulations that they say only shift the business and jobs to other countries like Canada, Argentina, China and Vietnam.

With the Democrats now the majority in Congress, embargo opponents are backing a number of bills that would loosen trade and travel restrictions.

“There is very strong support for various Cuba initiatives. In the House, lifting travel restrictions has 110 co-sponsors; agriculture could easily draw 300 votes, and many of the Democratic leaders are supporters,” said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas.

The Bush administration and Cuban-American political establishment oppose any loosening of the embargo as supporting the Castro regime.

The International Trade Commission report will be released by mid-July, not late June as first announced, Coleman said.