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While the amount of potential sales of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba is small, Montana's senior senator feels that every bit helps.

Thursday afternoon, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., met with about 20 farmers, ranchers, and business owners, outlining his plans for ending the Cuban trade embargo and for leading a trade mission this September to the island 90 miles southeast of Miami.

"I am not gonna oversell this," Baucus said, acknowledging the limited opportunity for Montana ag products to enter Fidel Castro's communist stronghold.

But by ending the embargo, Montana producers would be able to partake in an annual estimated $52 million market in wheat and a $76 million in meat sales.

"These are small steps, but within five years, it (sales to Cuba) could produce 12,000 jobs in the United States," Baucus said.

He has introduced legislation to lift the decades-old trade embargo with Cuba and dissolve the travel restrictions on U.S. citizens.

Baucus emphasized, "I am only talking about selling. We are not talking about free trade or negotiations. This is about exports to Cuba only."

Before sugar beet farmers could raise the issue, Baucus pre-empted their concerns about the sugar quota, which applies to about 43 countries, each having an annual quota for selling sugar in the United States.

The quota is adjusted each year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture based on projections of U.S. cane and beet sugar.

Sugar is Cuba's main export commodity, the value of which collapsed when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1989. The Soviets bought most of the island's sugar as part of their patronage during the Cold War.

Baucus said he was unsure that Congress would pass his Free Trade With Cuba Act of 2003, citing reduced opposition within Congress, but continued opposition at the White House.

He suggested that 2004 presidential politics was the reason.

"There are lots of electoral votes in Cuba," Baucus said, catching his Freudian slip immediately. "I mean Florida."

A very vocal minority of Cuban exiles keep the issue of communist Cuba in the political forefront.

It was Florida's 25 electoral votes in 2000 that gave George W. Bush the presidency after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge of the results by Democratic nominee Al Gore.

Rapelje grain farmer Gary Broyles said very little Montana wheat would make its way to Cuba, but that all exports help drive up the price of U.S. wheat. "That helps Montana," he said.

Baucus sees a tourist industry, aided by the lifting of travel restrictions on U.S. citizens, that will pump dollars into the Cuban economy which in turn will be used to better feed the nation.

"There is a huge potential," he said, alluding to the pre-Castro era which provided a mecca for U.S. tourists.

Baucus invited anyone who was interested in exploring trade possibilities in Cuba to join him and his staff on a two-day mission to Cuba, tentatively set for Sept. 11-12.

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