U.S. agriculture delegation visits Cuba, protests embargo

By Marc Frank and Daniel Trotta HAVANA (Reuters) - The most important U.S. agricultural delegation to visit Cuba in more than a decade began three days of meetings on Monday, hoping to find potential business partners, while urging the U.S. Congress to lift the U.S. embargo on trade with the island. Two former agriculture secretaries, a number of state agriculture officials and representatives of various state farm bureaus are among the 95 people making the trip, which was organized by the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba. That group was formed after the Dec. 17 announcement the United States and Communist-run Cuba would restore diplomatic relations. "The message we hope will get back to Washington is that we are a unifying voice that would like to see Congress act in 2015 and end the embargo," Cargill executive Devry Boughner Vorwerk, chairwoman of the coalition, said in an interview. The coalition says U.S. farmers are hungry for a $2 billion market so close to home and frustrated by U.S. restrictions. The United States created an embargo exception in 2000 to allow food sales, but it still denies Cuba credit, forcing it to pay cash up front. U.S. food sales to Cuba fell in 2014 to $291 million, from a peak of $710 million peak in 2008. The coalition wants U.S. exports to top $1 billion, about half the value of Cuba's food imports today. U.S. farmers can renew corn, wheat and rice exports to Cuba, which have fallen sharply, while importers want to explore Cuban seafood, winter vegetables, citrus and tobacco, coalition members said. There was particular interest in high-margin organic products from Cuba. While President Barack Obama has loosened some trade and travel restrictions, most of the embargo remains in place and can only be ended by Congress, now in Republican control. Vorwerk said a majority in Congress supports lifting the embargo but legislation has been blocked by the Republican leadership, which the coalition will target. "As we continue to have this conversation we will be able to change minds," Vorwerk told a news conference. Republicans traditionally support Cuba sanctions to punish the Communist government, which stifles dissent and controls the media. Coalition member Gary Heathcott, a Republican campaign consultant from Arkansas, said promoting business and farming should be easy for Republicans to support."At the end of the day, Republicans are about business," Heathcott said. "It doesn't get any more grass roots and Middle America than the farm industry." (Reporting by Marc Frank and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Steve Orlofsky)