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 and urge the U.S. Congress to lift the trade embargo against the Caribbean nation.
Two former agriculture secretaries, a number of state agriculture officials and representatives of various state farm bureaus are among the 95 people whose visit was organized by the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, formed after the Dec. 17 announcement that 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, told Reuters.
The coalition says U.S. farmers are hungry for the $2 billion market so close to home and frustrated by U.S. restrictions.
"We understand our competitors are here - Argentina, Brazil, the Europeans - and our hands are being tied behind our backs by our own government," Vorwerk said.
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.
The coalition was formed in January to lobby Congress to normalize trade relations.
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 $349 million in 2013 and far from the $710 million peak in 2008, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Cuba imports between 60 percent and 70 percent of its food, which came to $2 billion worth in 2014.
The Freedom to Export to Cuba Act introduced in the Senate would eliminate all trade restrictions, but the Republican leadership opposes the bill in both houses of Congress.
At a welcoming dinner on Sunday, soy farmer Mark Albertson marveled at the crowd.
"There is sorghum, rice, corn, wheat, soy beans; all the commodities are here," said Albertson, director of strategic marketing of the Illinois Soy Bean Association. "It is one thing to compete with Brazil for the Chinese market, but embarrassing when our own government stops us from being competitive in our own backyard."