Friday, August 25, 2006

Navajo company to sell agriculture products to Cuba

KVOA.com

A Navajo Nation agriculture company has signed a letter of intent to sell its products to Cuba, marking New Mexico's first agricultural agreement with the Communist country.

"This is a big market out there," said U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M. "I see this as laying the groundwork for many future trade deals with Cuba."

The agreement was signed Tuesday in Havana, Cuba, between the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry and Cuba's state food purchasing agency, Alimport.

Udall and NAPI general manager Tsosie Lewis were among a group of people who traveled to Cuba earlier this week to negotiate potential purchases from New Mexico. The two met with Pedro Alvarez Borrego, chairman and chief executive of Alimport, over three days.

It was unclear when the sales would begin. Prices must be set and other details worked out before an official contract is signed.

NAPI cultivates wheat, apples, yellow corn, onions and pinto beans on 68,000 acres of land near Farmington and would sell those products to Cuba.

"We are honored that our products will help feed the Cuban people," Lewis said.

A U.S. embargo imposed several years after Cuban leader Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 put a halt on trade with the country. But under a 2000 law passed by Congress, Alimport can negotiate the purchase of agricultural products directly from U.S. suppliers on a cash-only basis paid in advance by Cuba.

Udall said those restrictions make trade with Cuba "very, very difficult."

"I think we would be better off dropping these restrictions and having free trade with Cuba," he said.

Despite the restrictions, 35 states have entered into agreements to sell American products to Cuba since the law was passed, bringing in about $1.8 billion, he said.

"This agreement could mean millions of dollars for Native Americans in New Mexico," Udall said.

NAPI is one of the Navajo Nation's largest employers of Navajo people, with about 400 workers. The agreement is important to the company as it aims to further market its products globally. The company already has an agreement with Mexico to sell pinto beans.

The company plans to expand its operations in the next five years, and if successful, it could help solve some of the unemployment problems that plague the reservation, Udall said.

If the Navajo company talks to the Cubans in advance, they can grow products that fit the country's needs, he said.

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