By Anthony Boadle Mon May 28, 7:28 PM ET
HAVANA (Reuters) - With a catfish fry for Cuban officials and pleas to U.S.
President George W. Bush to ease sanctions, dozens of American
businessmen began negotiating new sales of agricultural products to
communist Cuba on Monday.
"I challenge Mr. Bush to tear down this embargo," said Mississippi
cotton farmer John Newcomb, borrowing
Ronald Reagan's famous 1987 line to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at
the Berlin Wall.
Executives of 114 companies from 25 states, backed by five members of
the U.S. Congress, are looking to increase sales of rice, wheat, corn,
soy products, peas, lentils, chicken, pork, supermarket goods,
newsprint, wooden poles and lumber.
U.S. sales of agricultural products to Cuba are allowed on a cash-only
basis under an exception to the embargo enforced against Castro's
government since 1962. Despite the hostility between Washington and
Havana, U.S. exports have totaled $1.55 billion since 2001.
The United States has become Cuba's biggest food supplier.
But sales fell 10 percent in 2005 to $350 million, and dipped further
last year to $340 million, a decline blamed on a 2005 decision by the
Bush administration to require Cuba to pay before its foods shipments
can leave U.S. ports.
U.S. farm groups are calling on Washington to lift trade sanctions and a
ban on travel to Cuba. Allowing American tourism to Cuba, they say, will
boost sales and generate Cuban income to pay for more American food imports.
"I believe free trade and travel between our countries is a fundamental
human right," said Bill Hawks, a former agriculture undersecretary in
the Bush administration until 2005.
The Mississippi delegation led by Hawks treated Cuban officials on
Sunday evening to a fry of catfish, which the state hopes to sell to Cuba.
U.S. rice producers are angling for a bigger share of what used to be
their largest foreign market before Castro's 1959 revolution.
Cuba imports $1.6 billion in food each year to feed its people,
including 700,000 metric tons of rice, a staple in the Cuban diet.
Vietnam supplies 400,000 metric tons.
"When it all shakes down, we believe a big part of the rest will be from
the United States," said Marvin Lehrer, an adviser to the USA Rice
Federation. Lehrer said Cuba would replace Mexico as the top market for
U.S. rice if restrictions ended.
Lehrer said business with Cuba was booming until the Bush administration
tightened payment rules, forcing Cuba to pay through third countries due
to the lack of direct banking.
"When the changes came, things soured," he said.
Cuba's food import agency Alimport hopes to recover growth in business
with the United States by closing deals worth $150 million this week.
Cuba turned to the United States for food, citing its competitive
quality and prices and its proximity, and Alimport
says purchases could triple if the embargo goes.
Cuba has spread its business among 35 states, a move some analysts say
is aimed at encouraging domestic U.S. opposition to the embargo. Several
legislative proposals to lift or ease the sanctions are currently before