By Vanessa Arrington | Associated Press Writer
A group of Americans from a U.S. trade association pushing for normalized commercial relations with communist Cuba arrived in Havana Wednesday to discuss future business possibilities and the current state of trade with their Cuban counterparts.
The visit by delegates from the Washington-based U.S.-Cuba Trade Association comes as members of Congress consider amending a new Treasury Department rule that forces Cuba to make full payment for American farm goods before the cargo leaves U.S. ports.
“The purpose of the trip really is for the members to get an update on what’s happening from the Cuban point of view,” primarily with the island’s economy and the effects of the latest U.S. measures, Kirby Jones, the association president, told The Associated Press.
Hopefully companies will sign some contracts as well, he said.
A 2000 law that created an exception to long-standing U.S. trade sanctions against Cuba allowed American farm goods to be sold directly to the island on a cash-only basis. Since first taking advantage of the exception in 2001, Cuba has contracted to buy more than US$1 billion (euro830 million) in goods.
But sales are down this year due to the latest U.S. restriction, implemented in February. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sales to Cuba from the first four months of 2005 are down 26 percent compared to the same period last year.
Among the products most affected are pasta, soybean oil, rice, grapes and concentrated milk. Sales of some products, such as cheese, fruit and vegetable juices and soups, have ceased altogether.
“Sales will continue to decline dramatically in 2005 unless the Congress can find a way to quickly overturn this change in the payment requirements,” said a letter sent to U.S. lawmakers this week by several U.S. companies belonging to the trade association.
Pedro Alvarez, the chairman of Cuba’s food import company Alimport, told The Associated Press that his company was forced to purchase US$300 million (euro248 million) of wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, poultry and pork from other countries, including Canada, Argentina, and Brazil.
Official trade negotiations between Alimport and U.S. companies that generally take place twice annually, in April and December, have yet to occur this year.
But Alimport wants business with the United States to keep growing, and Alvarez himself invited some 20 members of the trade association to come to Cuba. He said the island’s budget for buying food products from abroad this year will be US$1.7 billion (euro1.4 billion), an increase from the US$1.4 billion (euro1.2 billion) his company spent last year.
The association delegates will hold meetings Thursday and Friday with Cuban officials including Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcon and Foreign Trade Minister Raul de la Nuez as well as business representatives from the Spanish-based Sol Melia hotel company, which has some operations in Cuba, Jones said.
Trade with Cuba benefits nearly 150 U.S. organizations of farmers, processors and shippers in 37 states, according to the association.
Associated Press Writer Andrea Rodriguez contributed to this report.