FARGO, N.D. - North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said Monday that last week's passage of the farm bill means she can turn her focus to expanding American agriculture trade, which she began with a weekend trip to Cuba.
Heitkamp, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, joined the three-day tour organized by Montana Sen. Jon Tester and was in the island country Friday when President Barack Obama signed the farm legislation into law.
Heitkamp said the visit was meant to further discussions about agriculture, trade and normalizing relations with a country where commerce has been restricted since a 1960s embargo.
"I think 55 years of this relationship is probably enough and it's time to now transition to a different relationship," Heitkamp said. "We'll have to see what we can get consensus on so that we can actually move this forward."
Cuba has purchased about $4.7 billion in products from the United States since 2001, largely agricultural, according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service. The U.S. was the largest supplier of food and agricultural products to Cuba in every year but one between 2002 and 2012.
North Dakota is a leading producer of several pulse crops that are prominent in the Cuban diet, including beans, dry edible peas and lentils. The state also worked on a deal to sell seed potatoes to Cuba but it fell through.
"We know that there's a huge market there for the kinds of crop that we grow," Heitkamp said.
Asked if Congress has an appetite for normalizing relations with Cuba, Heitkamp said that one or two dissenters in the Senate can make a difference and some believe the embargo is essential.
"I think that it's going to take some pushing. It's going to take some continuous discussion," she said. "If we don't move this up the ladder in terms of kind of dialogue, I think it is going to be what it is."
She said there's also the potential down the road to open up markets for U.S. - and particularly North Dakota - farm machinery if Cuba can modernize its agricultural operations.
Doug Goehring, the North Dakota agriculture commissioner, said most Cuban farmers are still "locked into" 1950s conditions and it will take decades for them to update their practices. But he believes North Dakota officials should continue to peck away at Cuban markets.
"I think it's worth it to a point," Goehring said. "Trying to develop a relationship or maintain one lets them know you're still interested in doing business. You need to share information, tear down those walls and dispel misconceptions. It works. We've done it in other countries."
Heitkamp and Tester also met with U.S. government subcontractor Alan Gross, who is serving a 15-year sentence on a conviction for crimes against the Cuban state related to his work setting up hard-to-detect Internet networks meant to promote democracy.
"That incarceration has really led to a point of difficulty in our continuing effort to normalize relations," Heitkamp said.