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Senator Baucus: Historic Cuba deal opens new market

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When I first suggested opening Cuba to Montana and American products a few years ago, it wasn't the most popular idea in Washington.

But we kept pushing, kept fighting for what's right for Montana. Now, here we are three years later with a signed agreement to sell $10 million worth of Montana agriculture products to Cuba, and we're gaining momentum in Congress for lifting the decades-old embargo and travel restrictions the U.S. has in place on that country.

Traveling to Cuba in September, Rep. Denny Rehberg, seven Montanans, and I carved out a brand new market for Montana's high-quality agriculture products. For the first time ever, Cuba has signed an agreement to pay cash for Montana wheat, barley, cattle, and dry beans over the next six months. I'm proud because this deal is the first of its kind and it'll help create jobs and boost our agriculture economy.

Although this deal is great news for Montana's economy, we have some more work to do in Washington to change our government's failed policy toward Cuba.

In 1962, the U.S. embargoed virtually all trade with Cuba. Over the years, sanctions against Cuba were further tightened, restricting the rights of Americans to travel there. The embargo was eased slightly in 2000 to allow the sale of U.S. medicine and food.

These restrictions may have made sense back then, but it's clear they've had little, if any, effect on Fidel Castro's regime. That's why I believe it's time for a new policy toward Cuba, one of engagement and working together. Did you know virtually every other country in the world can trade with and travel to Cuba? So should we.

Having traveled there twice, I can tell you Cuba is a country in dire need of change - politically, economically, and socially. You can see it on the streets, in the open-air markets, and literally everywhere you go. The Cuban people deserve something new, and we should be the ones to give it to them.

Instead of continuing to isolate Cuba, it's time for the U.S. to change course and help Cuba move toward democratic principles, a thriving economy, and a free and open form of government. That's why I founded the Senate Cuba Working Group, a group of 16 senators from both parties who want to end the embargo and engage Cuba.

I've also introduced a bill to lift the travel ban and enable Montanans and Americans to go to Cuba. That's seen as the first step to a more open trading relationship and one that will enable us to solidify Cuba as a new market for our agriculture products. I teamed up with Republican Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming to introduce the travel bill, which has nearly 30 co-sponsors and is gaining support in the Congress every day.

It's unfortunate, though, the Bush Administration insists these restrictions are still needed. I respectfully but strongly disagree. These restrictions have done nothing to hurt Castro. All the embargo has done is hurt the Cuban people and hindered our ability to sell Montana and American products to the country.

Like so many others, I'm concerned about human rights violations in Cuba. That's why, while in Havana, I met with leading democracy activist Oswaldo Paya and pledged my support for a more free form of government there. I also made sure to tell President Fidel Castro personally human rights abuses must stop.

But I believe the answer to human rights violations is to engage and send more Americans and American products to Cuba, not fewer. The answer lies in empowering the Cuban people.

Our recent trip shows the opportunities with Cuba are endless. Before us lies an unprecedented opportunity to develop an entirely new market that could be worth many times more than our $10-million agreement. Studies show, in the absence of an embargo, the Cuban market could be worth as much as $1.2 billion to the U.S. economy, including $76 million in beef exports and $52 million in wheat exports.

I'd like to publicly thank the Montanans who took the time and expense to travel with me to Cuba: Rep. Denny Rehberg, Herb Karst, Brooks Dailey, Rich Owen, Dave Kelsey, Ervin Schlemmer, Mike Overstreet, and Taylor Brown.

Max Baucus is Montana's senior U.S. Senator, a member of the Senate's Agriculture Committee, and the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over international trade.