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Source: U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry news release

Senator Debbie Stabenow, Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, released the following opening statement - as prepared for delivery - at today's hearing entitled "Opportunities and Challenges for Agriculture Trade with Cuba."

In February 2015, Stabenow joined a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators introducing legislation that would lift the more than 50-year-long Cuban trade embargo. The Freedom to Export to Cuba Act, would allow U.S. companies to export products - including agricultural commodities and farm equipment - directly to Cuba.

While the legislation would permit American consumers to purchase Cuban-made products, the bill would not lift travel restrictions. Additionally, the bill would remove financial restrictions on business transactions and allow U.S. banks to extend credit to Cubans for the purchase of American farm goods, auto parts, and other consumer products.

Stabenow went to Cuba in January 2015 as part of a congressional delegation seeking to normalize trade relations between the countries. That visit marked Stabenow's second visit to the nation.

Stabenow's remarks, as prepared for delivery, follow.

Thank you Chairman Roberts for holding this important hearing on the topic of expanding trade opportunities between the United States and Cuba.

And thank you to the officials and industry representatives testifying here today for taking part in this process. I look forward to hearing your testimony shortly.

Improving trade with Cuba represents not only a great opportunity for America's farmers, ranchers, and manufacturers, but a meaningful way to help rebuild trust between our nations.

After more than 50 years of stalemate, it's time for a new policy on Cuba.

When I visited Cuba earlier this year - just days after President eased some trade restrictions - I saw firsthand the eagerness of Cubans who want to develop a more effective relationship with the United States.

But we can only get there if we begin to take meaningful steps to soften many of the barriers that exist between us.

And America's farmers and ranchers are uniquely positioned to lead the way.

Consider this - in 2014, the U.S. exported just over $290 million in agricultural goods to Cuba. That's a good start, but for a country only 90 miles off our coast, we can do much more.

Cuba's own import agency estimates that it will receive approximately $2.2 billion (in U.S. dollars) worth of food and agricultural products this year alone.

That type of economic potential deserves a chance to succeed - and is one reason why many of the largest producer groups, trade associations, and companies from within agriculture have come together to push for increased engagement.

Many on this Committee have pushed for increased engagement and have taken the opportunity to visit Cuba in recent months. I'd like to recognize Senators Leahy and Klobuchar, as well as Senator Boozman and Heitkamp, for their bipartisan leadership on this issue.

The commitment to democratic ideas and human rights we share as Americans are best realized through engagement. Our bedrock principles accompany every product farmers and ranchers send to Cuba.

Last week's action by the President is a step forward toward in normalizing our relationship and will test the commitment of the Cuban government to this process.

But even while we are making significant progress in rebuilding our relationship with Cuba - the policies governing trade between our countries are not yet designed to allow a steady flow of goods and services.

We must find a path forward that allows U.S. financial institutions to safely and securely work with Cuban purchasers, including the extension of lines of credit.

And we should work to authorize a greater range of goods, services, and supplies for export to Cuba.

These measures not only make good business sense - they also will help build Cuba's agricultural capacity and make the island a better trading partner in the long run.

I look forward to working with members of this Committee - in addition to our friends in American agriculture - as we write the next important chapter in our relationship with Cuba.

Thank you.

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