WASHINGTON, D.C. -- In rare meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro, U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and a small group of lawmakers encouraged the president to work on human rights and other efforts that could loosen trade with that country, including North Dakota agricultural exports.

Castro has been in New York City for several days to participate in the United Nations General Assembly. It was the first time in 15 years that a Cuban leader visited the U.S. The meeting at the request of the Cuban Embassy lasted about an hour and a half, and included Sens. Heitkamp and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., as well as about eight congressmen, including Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., of Minnesota's Sixth District.

Heitkamp said Leahy, who has a long history of working to restore relations, mentioned the need for Cuba to improve human rights, which could get "more members interested" in expanding economic relationships.

The North Dakota senator said she was impressed with Castro's openness and willingness to "listen, and hear some things" that he doesn't like. She said Castro reiterated earlier statements that he intends to step down after another two years in the post.

Heitkamp said it was one of Castro's first meetings with American lawmakers since the U.S. and Cuba restored diplomatic ties. Heitkamp has worked in many ways to expand exports of U.S. agricultural commodities to Cuba, a country with high demand for North Dakota crops like dry beans, peas and lentils.

In April, Heitkamp helped introduce a bill to make it easier for U.S. exporters to offer financing for agricultural exports into Cuba. The bill followed Heitkamp's visit to Cuba in February 2014, during which she met with Cuban agricultural trade officials to discuss bilateral economic benefits of expanding agricultural exports from North Dakota and the U.S. to Cuba.

Heitkamp said she evoked a smile from Castro as she promoted the idea of his country purchasing its peas and lentils from North Dakota, and said she's proud to promote the region's crops.

"Our state's crops, like black beans, peas and lentils, are in high demand in Cuba, making it the perfect market for North Dakota producers whose bottom lines depend on exports," she said.

"There's no reason for Cuba to buy from Canada or Southeast Asia rather than from North Dakota farmers," she said.

Heitkamp introduced the Agricultural Export Expansion Act with Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., The bill is attached to an appropriations bill which is awaiting a vote in the full Senate.

The biggest barrier that agricultural exporters in North Dakota and throughout the U.S. have faced when trying to export to Cuba is the legal prohibition on providing credit for exports to Cuba.

Heitkamp's act would lift the ban on private banks and companies offering credit for agricultural exports to Cuba and help level the playing field for exporters in North Dakota and across the country. She said Republican legislators might respond to the idea of benefitting trade in this way, without spending taxpayer dollars.

Currently, all U.S. exports to Cuba require "cash on the barrel head," while other nations around the world offer credit to Cuban importers, essentially preventing farmers and ranchers from being able to ship their products to Cuba," she said. Normalizing Cuban trade relationships would "help us in the entire hemisphere," with other Latin American countries, she said.

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