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By Alan Bjerga and Bennett Roth, Bloomberg News (TNS)

In the first quarter of 2015, the number of organizations lobbying the federal government about the Cuban embargo doubled from the previous three months. Senate records show that after President Barack Obama announced the normalization of diplomatic relations with Havana, dozens of organizations — like Marriott International, Royal Caribbean Cruises and Major League Baseball — rushed to send representatives to talk to members of Congress about repealing sanctions enacted against Fidel Castro’s communist regime by President John F. Kennedy in 1962.

They were late to the party. Farmers have lobbied against the embargo since before 2000, when Congress passed legislation allowing humanitarian exports of agriculture and medicine. U.S. farming accounted for nearly half of all entities lobbying on Cuba from 2003-05. When hostility from the George W. Bush administration dried up exports, farmers continued their quest to end the embargo.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that Cuba could be worth $1.1 billion to American farmers. “We have a natural advantage with our proximity, and we have excellent products,” said Justin Flaten, president of JM Grain in Great Falls, Mont., who started selling to Cuba 10 years ago. “It’s a great market for us. We should be in it.”

Flaten first sold pinto beans and peas to Cuba after his first business visit, in 2005. It wasn’t easy. Financing had to be through a French bank, and shipping problems sometimes resulted in his his crops sitting for days in Port Everglades, Fla., waiting for payments. The frustrations soured his taste for Cuba trade, he said. He last sold lentils to Alimport, Cuba’s state-owned agricultural purchaser, in 2010.

In June, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who sponsored what became the 2000 legislation that let farmers sell to Cuba, introduced a bill with Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, to lift the embargo. The legislation would preserve a ban on government funds being used to promote trade. “The embargo hasn’t worked because it’s unilateral,” Moran said. “Cuba can still buy from our competitors.”

Not all farmers favor a quick rollback of sanctions. Janell Hendren, national affairs coordinator for the Gainesville-based Florida Farm Bureau Federation, said normalized trade would mean imports as well as exports. Farming in Cuba is highly subsidized, creating potentially unfair trade, she said. “We could be at a huge competitive disadvantage” on citrus fruit and vegetable crops. “We’re not anxious to have these problems.”

Florida’s farm interests are up against major U.S. players. Deere, soybean processor Bunge North America, and several state farm bureaus are in favor of opening Cuba trade, according to lobbying records. Cargill, the world’s biggest agribusiness, is bankrolling the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, a consortium of commodity growers, farm lenders, and exporters.

Farmers may provide the muscle Obama, or his successor, needs to push a final deal through. “When I saw him say it’s time for a new approach, I thought, that’s exactly what I thought when I went to Cuba,” Flaten said. “There are droves of young people there who just want an opportunity. If you want to end the communist regime, you help give it to them.”

(c)2015 Bloomberg News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

AFP Photo/Yuri Cortez

Sen. David Perdue

Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) pulled out of his final debate against Democrat Jon Ossoff on Thursday —because he'd rather attend a Donald Trump campaign rally.

The Nov. 1 Senate debate was planned months ago, but Perdue's campaign said he could not participate as promised because he has been too busy doing his job.

"Senator Perdue will not be participating in the WSB-TV debate but will instead join the 45th president, Donald J. Trump, for a huge Get-Out-The-Vote rally in Northwest Georgia. For 8 of the last 14 days of this campaign, Senator Perdue went back to Washington to work for much needed COVID relief," his spokesperson John Burke said in a statement, referencing a failed attempt by Senate Republicans to pass Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-KY) "skinny" $500 billion proposal.

"To make up for the lost time, Senator Perdue has over 20 campaign stops planned for the closing days of this race, and he is excited to welcome and join President Trump in Georgia before November 3rd to campaign for both of their re-election efforts," Burke added.

WSB-TV noted on Thursday that it offered Perdue's campaign other time slots to accommodate the Trump rally, but the overture was rebuffed.

Ossoff's campaign blasted Perdue's "cowardly withdrawal," saying in a statement that the move "says it all: David Perdue feels entitled to his office, and he'll do anything to avoid accountability for his blatant corruption and his total failure during this unprecedented health crisis."

The incumbent's decision to break his promise to debate came one day after a video of Jon Ossoff criticizing Perdue's anti-Obamacare record at a Wednesday debate went viral. As of Friday morning, a 72-second clip of Ossoff has been viewed more than 12 million times.

Perdue responded to that attack by making the odd claim that he repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act — which would take insurance away from hundreds of thousands of his constituents — because he believed doing so would cover more people.

"I voted against the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, because it was taking insurance away from millions of Georgians. Today almost 18 percent of Georgians don't have any health insurance because of the Affordable Care Act," he falsely claimed.

This is not the first time Perdue has put Trump ahead of the interests of Georgians. According to FiveThirtyEight, he has voted with Trump about 95 percent of the time, including backing his right-wing Supreme Court nominees, his tax cuts for large corporations and the very wealthy, and his repeated attempts to take money from military families to pay for a massive Southern border wall.

Medical experts and data analyses have suggested Trump's rallies have been super-spreader events for the coronavirus. Trump has refused to adhere to social distancing rules or to require mask usage at the events and the mass gatherings have frequently been immediately followed by case spikes in the communities where he holds them.

One poll this week found that voters across the country said they are less likely to vote for Trump because of his "large, in-person campaign rallies where wearing a mask is not required of attendees."

The race between Ossoff and Perdue is considered a "toss-up" by election experts, and polls show it as virtual tied.

If no candidate gets a majority on Tuesday, the top two finishers will face off in a January runoff.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.