Wednesday, September 27, 2006

U.S. Companies Flock To Cuba

U.S. Companies Flock To Cuba

HAVANA, Cuba, Sept. 24, 2006(CBS) Life for most Cubans is a bare bones
existence. The average wage is about $13 a month. But health care and
education are free, and no one goes hungry because every Cuban receives
a food ration.

There are open-air markets all over Cuba with mostly home grown
products. But the truth is that Cuba doesn't come close to producing
enough food for its people, reports CBS News correspondent Russ
Mitchell. Up to thirty percent of the food Cuba imports comes from the
United States — that's more than from any other country.

Despite the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo, today U.S. companies are
flocking to Cuba — all because of a loophole Congress approved in 2000
that allows for the sale of American food to Cuba. What started as a
trickle has turned into a half billion dollar flood of sales each year.

"I think it's substantial," said Kirby Jones of the U.S.-Cuba Trade
Association, in response to a question about U.S. food sales to Cuba. "I
think in the $100's of millions or billions of dollars."

Jones, a lobbyist and deal-maker, represents dozen's of U.S. companies
in Cuba.

"The impression in the United States is that Cuba is stagnant — locked
into some rigid communist ideology and structure," said Jones. "Cuba is
totally different, hundreds of companies do business with Cuba."

Three years ago Cuba was purchasing about $1.7 million in poultry from
the United States, according to Ron Sparks, Alabama's Commissioner of
Agriculture. "Now they are purchasing about $57 million of poultry and
40 to 50 percent of that comes out of Alabama," says Sparks.

And it's not just Alabama. There are 37 U.S. states that export food to
Cuba, according to Pedro Alvarez, who oversees the importing of food to
Cuba. Alvarez thinks that U.S. food imports to Cuba would skyrocket if
trade was normalized between the two countries.

"In the first five years, trade and services would be more than 20
billion dollars," Alvarez told Mitchell.

"The Cuban dictator has spent a considerable amount of money making
agricultural purchases to try to influence the Congress to get what he
really wants, which is mass U.S. tourism," said Florida Congressman
Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

Diaz-Balart, like other critics of Castro, charges Cuba is hoping U.S.
politicians, eager to boost their state's economies, will pressure
Congress to lift the trade embargo.

"The political prisoners in Cuba ask us — keep the embargo until we are
freed, until political parties are legalized and elections are scheduled
in Cuba," said Diaz-Balart.

But two Cuban dissidents who spoke to CBS News say trade with the United
States could be beneficial to their cause.

"I agree with companies of United States here in Cuba because investment
comes with people, and people have ideas," Oscar Espinosa Chepe told
Mitchell. "These will be injections of ideas, democratic ideas."

In 2003, Espinosa Chepe was charged with sedition and sentenced to 20
years in prison. He was recently released because of poor health. His
wife, Miriam Leiva, is a journalist.

"I think little by little this could bring about democracy in Cuba,"
said Leiva.

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