WASHINGTON — A top executive of Riceland Foods encouraged a Senate panel on Tuesday to build on President Barack Obama’s recent efforts to broaden trade opportunities with Cuba by fully lifting the trade and travel embargo on the island nation.

WASHINGTON — A top executive of Riceland Foods encouraged a Senate panel on Tuesday to build on President Barack Obama’s recent efforts to broaden trade opportunities with Cuba by fully lifting the trade and travel embargo on the island nation.


Terry Harris, senior vice president of marketing and risk management for the Stuttgart-based rice cooperative, said U.S. rice growers would benefit from an open market in Cuba — likely securing at least 20 percent of Cuba’s annual rice imports within two years. In a decade, the U.S. could be supplying between half and three-quarters of its rice imports. Cuba now imports about $300 million worth of rice annually, mostly from Vietnam.


"With the lifting of the embargo and the restoration of trade and travel, normal commercial relations would be restored. This would allow direct banking and extending of credit under commercial terms, which would position the U.S. to compete with Vietnam for the Cuban rice market," he said.


Obama’s move earlier this year to normalize relations with Cuba has yet to open the rice market to U.S. producers, who have been shut out for the past decade — largely over financing restrictions. While some of those roadblocks are now removed, Harris said, Cuba has shown little interest in purchasing U.S. rice until the embargo is lifted.


"They are looking for elimination of the embargo so they can create a foreign exchange," he said. "Small, incremental moves are not swaying them to work closely with us."


Harris testified Tuesday before the Senate Agriculture Committee at a hearing on Cuba trade.


Prior to the U.S. embargo on Cuba more than 50 years ago, the island was the top destination for U.S. rice. Annual rice shipments reached as much as a quarter of a million metric tons in the 1950s, and the U.S. accounted for more than half of Cuba’s rice imports. Congress enacted the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, which opened the door for U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba — at least briefly.


Harris made the first sale of rice to Cuba in November 2001 — and was there to witness the first shipment when it arrived in the Port of Havana — but a regulatory change made in 2005 by the Office of Foreign Assets Control effectively ended the opportunity. OFAC reversed itself in January, opening the door again for rice exports.


Harris said he has since contacted the Cuban company that imports rice, but it has expressed no interest in purchasing American rice at this time.


"There are still obstacles to conducting normal trade with Cuba," he said. "To give U.S. rice the chance to compete in Cuba, the rice industry seeks the ultimate lifting of the embargo and the elimination of all restrictions on tourism and trade with Cuba. This, of course, requires Congressional action."


Michael Scuse, undersecretary of USDA’s Farm and Foreign Agricultural Service, said Cuba’s tightly controlled import policy is an impediment. All U.S. agricultural imports are now channeled through Alimport, a state corporation, while some competing nations have additional trading options within Cuba.


"Alimport is the exclusive agent for the Cuban government on buying decisions and negotiating purchases from U.S. firms. Alimport not only negotiates contracts for purchase with U.S. firms, but it arranges for payment, takes control of the imports at the Cuban port, and manages the distribution process within Cuba," he said.