By Ray Sánchez
Posted May 31 2007
Havana · In the end, Cuban officials seemed to value the open criticism
of the U.S. trade embargo almost as much as the millions of dollars'
worth of food products purchased at a trade fair Wednesday.
Some 275 representatives from 114 companies in 25 states attended the
annual fair, the largest meeting with American business leaders since
convalescing President Fidel Castro stepped down last summer. Pedro
Alvarez, the head of Alimport, Cuba's food import company, said in the
coming week the gathering should result in the signing of $140 million
to $150 million in contracts for tons of wheat, corn, beef, chicken,
pork and other products from the U.S. companies. Officials signed $118
million worth of contracts on Wednesday alone.
"Commerce between our countries helps both Cuba and the United States,"
said Pedro Alvarez, Alimport's CEO. "The same with travel between our
countries. You have to be blind not to see that."
The deals ensured that Cuba buys as much from U.S. producers in 2007 as
it did last year, when the communist government spent $570 million for
American food and agricultural products, including shipping and banking
Participants said attendance was down compared to fairs held in the
past, when Fidel Castro often mingled with American farm producers.
Castro's successor, his brother Raul, did not attend the fair, making
Cuba Trade Minister Raul De La Nuez the highest ranking official in
But the three-day trade fair, concluded Wednesday, also became a public
forum for mounting criticism of the U.S. trade embargo enforced in 1962.
Monday's opening session was attended by a U.S. congressional delegation
seeking to open trade with Cuba that included Rep. Rosa De Lauro, a
Connecticut Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on
Jim Sumner, president of the Atlanta-based U.S. Poultry and Egg Export
Council, concluded the meeting Wednesday by vowing to work toward
"normalized and open commercial relations" with Cuba.
"When somebody says at the next meeting, `Maybe we'll have an open
relationship one day that will be true,' I hope we're all still around
and we can come down with some more Georgia wine and toast."
The Bush administration has made it more difficult for U.S. agricultural
and food companies to do business in Cuba by imposing strict payment
guidelines and making it clear to companies that Washington is opposed
to such sales. U.S. sales to Cuba are allowed on a cash-only basis under
a 2000 law creating an exception to the trade embargo. Since 2001, the
island has spent more than $1.5 billion on American farm products,
including hefty transportation, insurance and financing costs.
David Radlo, the Key West-based president of Radlo Foods, of Watertown,
Mass., said his firm signed contracts worth tens of millions of dollars
to import Mississippi catfish and cotton from the southern states to
Cuba. He downplayed the restrictions on doing business with Cuba.
"In the five years that we've been selling products to Cuba, the
political hurdles have never hurt," he said. "We know how to deal now
with third party banks. I think people use the hurdles as an excuse for
not getting a contract. Hundreds of companies come down every year but
many of them are not prepared to trade with Cuba."
Ray Sánchez can be reached at email@example.com.