WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A congressional panel is poised to take the first step toward ending a decades-old U.S. ban on travel to Cuba and removing other hurdles to food sales to the Caribbean island, a senior lawmaker said on Tuesday.
"This bill has been needed for a long time," House of Representatives Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson said in a statement ahead of committee action on Wednesday.
The bipartisan bill that Peterson helped craft with Representative Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, enjoys broad support from U.S. farm and business groups that favor ending the nearly 50-year-old U.S. embargo on communist-led Cuba.
The bill is expected to clear the committee and be sent to the full House, where it will face strong resistance from conservative lawmakers and Cuban-Americans who oppose any step to ease restrictions on trade and travel with Cuba until a democratic government is in power in Havana.
Proposals to lift the ban have floundered in Congress over the last decade due to concerns about human rights abuses in the one-party state built from Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution.
President Barack Obama has taken some steps to improve relations with Havana, such as allowing unlimited family travel and remittances and greater telecommunications links.
But Washington says the Cuban government has failed to reciprocate, making it politically difficult for the White House to move further in easing the Cold War-era embargo.
Cuban officials have encouraged recent U.S. trade delegations visiting Havana to work for abolish the travel ban because the arrival of more American tourists would give the government more money to buy U.S. goods.
Business groups mounted a lobbying effort on Tuesday to ensure Peterson would have enough votes in the committee to approve the bill without any changes.
"Enabling Americans to travel to Cuba and expand already legal export operations is an important first step to reforming U.S. policy toward Cuba," Bruce Josten, top lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said in a letter to lawmakers.
Congress exempted farm sales from the long-standing U.S. embargo on Cuba in 2000 so long as Havana paid for the goods in cash and money transfers were handled by a third-country bank.
The administration of former President George W. Bush angered many farm-state lawmakers by interpreting the cash payment rule in a narrow way as payment before shipment.
Even so, U.S. farm exports to Cuba reached a record $710 million in 2008, before dropping to $528 million in 2009.