Tuesday, May 29, 2007

U.S. executives blast Cuba policy

U.S. executives blast Cuba policy
By Ray Sánchez
Posted May 29 2007

HAVANA · A procession of American agricultural executives on Monday
blasted the 4-decade-old policies that ban most business with Cuba
during a meeting of U.S. food producers expected to yield $150 million
in deals with the communist island.

The opening session of the largest gathering in Cuba of U.S. food
suppliers since convalescing President Fidel Castro fell ill last summer
was attended by five congressional members, including Reps. Rosa
DeLauro, D-Conn, chairwoman of the House agricultural appropriations
subcommittee; Jack Kingston, R-Ga.; Marion Berry, D-Ark.; Rodney
Alexander, R-La.; and Bob Etheridge, D-N.C.

"We in Mississippi are absolutely committed to ending the political
barriers that separate our countries," said William Hawks, a Mississippi
farm executive and former undersecretary in the U.S. agricultural
department. "It is time that we move forward."

In addition to tightening the trade embargo against Cuba, 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 frowns on such sales.

"The trade embargo has not only hurt the Cuban people but it has hurt
the American farmer," said John Newcomb, an Arkansas farm executive. "I
want to challenge Mr. Bush to tear down this embargo now: Open trade and
travel between our two countries."

Still, Pedro Alvarez, chairman of the island's food import company
Alimport, said the three-day meetings should generate enough deals to
ensure that Cuba buys as much U.S. goods in 2007 as it did last year. He
said more than 200 agribusiness executives, food exporters and farm
groups from 28 U.S. states were attending the talks.

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. Alvarez said the figure
would easily double if U.S. restrictions were lifted.

Last year, the values of U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba fell 10 percent
to $340.4 million, a decline blamed on a 2005 decision by the Bush
administration to require Cuba to pay before its food shipments leave
American ports.

Steven Rupert, president of Manatee Exporting Co. of America in Tampa,
said he was hoping to strike his first deal with Cuba, selling apples,
onions and pears to the island. He said a previous deal with Cuba fell
through because of trade restrictions.

"I have some prices and I'm hoping we can get a deal done," he said.

Juan Artigas, president of EMRN Group Inc., a Sarasota-based
agricultural products firm, said that though he was born in Havana and
left as a child decades ago, he had no problem doing business with
Castro's Cuba.

"I don't care about the politics," he said. "This is an opportunity to
do business -- it is just business."

Ray Sanchez can be reached at,0,3605919.story?coll=sfla-news-caribbean

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