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Cuba still hot trade zone for U.S. firms

It's been two years since U.S. commercial food shipments returned to Cuba, and 250 companies this week seek more business.

By Associated Press
Published December 14, 2003

HAVANA - The door to American trade with Cuba was nudged open a bit more this weekend as more than 250 U.S. agribusiness representatives traveled to Havana for sales talks, marking the second anniversary of the first U.S. commercial food shipments to the communist island.

Pedro Alvarez, head of Cuba's food import company, Alimport, said he expected at least $130-million in new sales contracts would be signed during four days of talks, which begin Monday.

"We've had a really strong response from companies" to the government's invitation to participate in the talks, said Alvarez, adding that 147 companies from 29 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico are expected to attend.

Alvarez said the companies included Riceland Foods Inc. of Stuttgart, Ark.; Cargill Inc., of Minnetonka, Minn.; Archer Daniels Midland of Decatur, Ill.; FC Stone of Des Moines, Iowa; and Kaehler's Homedale Farms in St. Charles, Minn.

The steady interest by American agribusiness in Cuba comes despite a tightening of restrictions on the island by the Bush administration, including increased enforcement of rules on American travel.

Most average Americans are effectively barred from visiting the island under U.S. Treasury Department regulations banning them from spending money in Cuba. In recent weeks, American authorities have increased inspections of Cuban-bound flights from Miami to ensure they have approval to travel.

But a law passed in 2000 made an exception to the four-decade-old U.S. trade embargo, allowing direct, commercial sales of American farm products to the Caribbean country on a cash basis.

Alvarez said that since then Cuba has signed contracts to buy $509-million worth of American farm goods.

Chris Aberle, domestic sales director for FC Stone, said, "Cuba has been a good business for us."

FC Stone is owned by 750 grain cooperatives throughout the United States, said Aberle, who is traveling to Havana on Monday for the talks.

"A big part of our business is to link members with as many markets for their products as possible, and we will continue to search out those markets," he said.

Aberle said FC Stone in recent days received an advance order from Cuba for nearly $7-million worth of corn. He said that once the contracts for those sales are signed in the coming days, FC Stone will have racked up $45-million in sales to Cuba in corn, soy beans and wheat.

Arriving in Havana on Saturday was Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks and the state's top congressional representatives, who said they hoped to drum up new business for their state's producers.

"Our No. 1 industry in Alabama is agriculture and our relationship with Cuba could help our producers," said Sparks, a Democrat.

High-ranking Republicans also have traveled to Cuba in support of increased trade.

The first shipment, $300,000 worth of chicken parts, sailed into Havana Bay from Gulfport, Miss., on Dec. 16, 2001.

Because the law bans U.S. financing for the sales, the Cuban money generally is shipped through European banks. Cuban officials have said those roundabout funding transactions have cost the island at least $10-million because of bank fees and fluctuating foreign exchange rates.

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