Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Official: Cuba Spent $108M on U.S. Food

Official: Cuba Spent $108M on U.S. Food
Wednesday March 28, 1:20 am ET
By Will Weissert, Associated Press Writer
Cuban Official: Island Spent Nearly $108M on American Farm Products This

HAVANA (AP) -- Cuba has spent $108 million on American food and
agricultural products so far this year but would have spent far more if
not for Washington's 45-year-old embargo, a top official said Tuesday.

Pedro Alvarez, director of the island's food import company, Alimport,
made the comments as he signed agreements to purchase an additional
$15.75 million worth of wheat and pork from Nebraska producers.

He said Cuba spent $560 million on U.S. food and agricultural products
last year, and more than $2.2 billion since December 2001.

Alvarez's figures on Cuba-U.S. food and agricultural trade are
substantially higher than other estimates, which disagree with Cuba's
inclusion of shipping and other costs.

The embargo prohibits most American travel and trade to Cuba, but a law
passed by Congress in 2000 permitted Fidel Castro's government to
directly purchase U.S. farm goods on a cash-only basis. Havana at first
rejected the measure but began taking advantage of it in late 2001.

Alvarez said that if the embargo were lifted, U.S.-Cuba trade in goods
and services -- including tourism -- could swell to $21 billion in the
first five years.

"Alimport keeps the door open to American exporters, but sadly their own
laws prohibit doing business with Cuba," he said.

Even though America is the island's leading source of food and
agricultural products, Alvarez said Cuba can never be sure Washington
will allow its country's exporters to make good on contracts they sign
with Havana. He said U.S. powdered milk and other perishables had
spoiled on ships in Cuban ports because American authorities held up
cash payments sent from the island.

"Even though American companies are efficient in providing their
products, there continue to be too many uncertainties for us," he said.
"We never know when a shipment is going to be held up and that can't be."

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, in Havana to help negotiate Tuesday's
agreements, was making his third visit to Cuba since taking office a bit
more than two years ago.

He said that "in spite of the challenges between our two countries, and
how we export products down here, we intend to increase the number of
Nebraska products sold."

John Kavulich, senior policy adviser at the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic
Council of New York, said earlier this month that the communist-run
island bought $340 million in American farm products last year -- down
about 3 percent from 2005.

Excluding shipping and other logistical costs, Cuba has spent more than
$1.5 billion for food and agricultural products since December 2001,
according to Kavulich.

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