A trio of U.S. senators is protesting a U.S. Treasury Department proposal that they contend could seriously hamper the growing trade in agricultural products between the United States and Cuba.

One of the trio, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., has threatened to put a hold on any new Treasury Department nominees that come before the Senate if the department's Office of Foreign Assets Control goes ahead with plans to require payment in advance of shipment on sales to Cuba.

After nearly 40 years of economic sanctions against Cuba, Congress passed the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act that made sales of food products legal on a cash-in-advance basis in 2000. Since then, Cuba has become the United States 21st largest agricultural export market.

But administration officials have continued to try to impose new barriers on trade with Cuba, claiming that exports help prop up the regime of dictator Fidel Castro.

“Moving to obstruct lawful trade after three years of it functioning without incident takes this administration's dangerous obsession with Cuba to a whole new level,” said Baucus. “I will not sit idly by if the Treasury Department attempts to rewrite legislation Congress intended to facilitate trade with Cuba. I am prepared to hold up the next significant Treasury Department nominee until this gets resolved.”

The proposed change in the regulations governing food sales to Cuba would clarify the Treasury Department's interpretation of food sales to Cuba on a ‘cash in advance’ basis, according to a statement by Baucus.

Since 2001, U.S. businesses have delivered some $800 million in ag products to the island, receiving payment in advance of delivery. Last month, Treasury, State and Agriculture Department officials met to discuss a proposed clarification of the ‘payment in advance’ requirement that would require buyers to pay in advance of shipment, a new condition at which Cuba's import agency, Alimport, may balk.

In a Nov. 23rd letter to Treasury Secretary John Snow, Baucus joined Senators Larry Craig, R-Idaho, and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., in noting that “OFAC's mission is to enforce sanctions in place against Cuba, not to regulate or interfere in lawful commerce between the United States and Cuba.

“Since the TSRA law expressly codified the right of U.S producers to sell food and medicine to Cuba, any attempts by OFAC to inhibit such sales must necessarily be interpreted as a conscious and intentional decision by OFAC to flout the will of Congress,” the senators wrote.

“Moreover, given that your other, far more important mission is to help root out the international sources of terrorist financing, we must express our outrage and profound disappointment that you appear to be choosing a course of action that will most likely create an additional burden - and thus a greater drain - on your agency resources. We consider this irresponsible and indefensible.”

Earlier this year, Baucus criticized a Treasury report showing that the equivalent of 21 full-time OFAC employees are allocated to enforcing the Cuba travel ban, while only 16 are allocated to the search for Al-Qaeda's financial sources of support.

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