Monday, December 12, 2005

Maine Governor Latest to Sign Cuba Trade Deal

By Marc Frank Sun Dec 11,10:19 PM ET

HAVANA (Reuters) - Maine Gov. John Baldacci, the third U.S. governor to travel to Cuba this year in search of trade, won a deal on Sunday to sell $20 million in farm goods to the country's state-run food import agency.

"We appreciate our trade with Cuba. It is good for our farmers and good for our state," Baldacci said, after signing a series of documents with Cuba's Alimport.

The governor of Nebraska visited Cuba in November and the governor of Louisiana in March, each walking away with similar agreements and meeting with President Fidel Castro.

Baldacci, a Democrat, is in Cuba with a delegation of businessmen, farmers and state officials. He arrived on Sunday and was expected to see Castro before departing on Monday, while other delegates may stay longer to negotiate contracts.

Food sales to Cuba on a cash basis only were approved by Congress in 2000 as an exception to the U.S. trade embargo enforced against Castro's leftist government since 1962.

In those five years, Cuba has grown to become the 26th largest market for U.S. agricultural exports, from 225th.

Alimport Chairman Pedro Alvarez said in a recent interview that the United States was Cuba's biggest food supplier, selling cereals, grains, poultry and other products.

The Bush administration, a fierce Castro critic with strong political ties to Cuban-Americans in Florida, has tried to hamper sales by tightening regulations and denying visas to Cuban agriculture inspectors.

U.S. farm groups strongly support the trade, as do many national and state-level politicians who are pushing for a further relaxation of U.S. sanctions.

Alvarez said on Sunday that food purchases from the United states amounted to $493 million so far this year, including shipping and other costs, compared with $474 million in 2004.

Cuba had already signed agreements to purchase Maine seed-potatoes and apples this year, but Alvarez said the deals had not materialized because the United States denied visas to his inspectors to visit Maine.

"We have to work with the congress and the administration on licensing and visas," Baldacci said, adding it would be a "step by step" process to further improve relations with the communist-run country.

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