Anita Snow, Canadian Press
Published: Wednesday, May 23, 2007
HAVANA (AP) - Communist Cuba expects to sign contracts for much as US$150 million in American agricultural goods next week at the largest gathering of U.S. farm producers here since Fidel Castro fell ill last summer.
Pedro Alvarez, chairman of the island's food import company Alimport, said that talks beginning Monday should produce enough deals to ensure Cuba buys as much U.S. goods in 2007 as it did last year.
About 100 American farm groups and companies from 22 U.S. states are participating.
In 2006, Cuba spent US$570 million for U.S. food and agricultural products, including shipping and banking costs, Alvarez said in an interview Tuesday. So far this year, his government has spent $225 million to purchase and import American goods.
"We are hoping that by the end of the coming week we will have between $100 million to $150 million in new contracts," said Alvarez, adding he expects as many as 250 Americans at the talks that will wind up with contract signings on May 30.
Washington maintains a 45-year-old trade embargo on the island, but U.S. food and agricultural products can be sold directly to Cuba under a law passed by the U.S. Congress in 2000.
Since Havana first took advantage of the law in 2001, it has spent more than $2.2 billion on American farm products, including hefty transportation and financing costs.
"We would buy double that if not for the restrictions," said Alvarez, referring to American regulations that include time-consuming paperwork and cash-only financing.
Castro often mingled with American farm producers during past gatherings aimed at increasing U.S. sales to the island. At an agribusiness fair in 2002, he fed milk in a baby bottle to a buffalo calf from Minnesota, greeted then-governor Jesse Ventura and penned some of the contracts to buy American goods.
But the 80-year-old Castro has not been seen in public since July 31, when he announced he had undergone emergency intestinal surgery and provisionally ceded his duties to his younger brother Raul, the defense minister.
Since then, he has been seen only in official photographs and videotapes, but authorities report that he is getting better. In recent weeks he has written a string of essays on international affairs, often denouncing the use of food crops to produce ethanol.
During the only other large gathering of U.S. agribusiness interests in Cuba following Castro's illness, fewer than 80 American farm groups and companies converged here in November during the annual International Fair of Havana.
Cuba generally uses the gatherings to register its objection to the U.S. trade embargo, with American farm producers anxious to do more trade with the island chiming in with their own objections.
Last week, rice producers from the United States and 23 Latin American countries meeting in Mexico adopted a statement encouraging"These restrictions prejudice significantly U.S. agricultural producers as well as exporters, transporters and other related economic activities," participants in the 1st Pan-American Rice Congress said.
As a preview to next week's gathering, North Dakota Agricultural Commissioner Roger Johnson is leading a trade mission to the island this week to discuss the possibility of selling potatoes to the island.
An Alabama trade mission arrives Friday. Alabama Agriculture Department spokeswoman Christy Rhodes Kirk said that the delegation, including several state lawmakers, will help companies negotiate the sale of products including poultry, lumber, utility poles, cotton, peanuts, fish and snack foods.
Alimport's Alvarez said Cuba expects other large delegations from Georgia, Florida and Mississippi, and smaller groups from California, New York, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and Washington state. Congress to eliminate U.S. trade and travel sanctions on Cuba.
[JG: Due to the arrogance of the U.S. goverment, and this includes both Republican and Democratic administrations, the requests will continue to be ignored. The U.S. government could care less about the opinions and requests of the people of the world.]