By VANESSA ARRINGTON | Associated Press Writer
Cuba has agreed to buy about $125 million in farm goods from U.S. companies attending trade talks in Havana, officials said.
The deals, which were agreed on during three days of negotiations that ended Friday, surpassed expectations, Pedro Alvarez, chairman of the Cuban food import company Alimport, told The Associated Press.
Cuba had expected to sign deals worth about $100 million going into the talks, he said.
More than 300 people, primarily producers of American farm goods, attended the meetings, as did several lawmakers — including Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.
On Thursday, Cuban President Fidel Castro addressed the group for several hours on subjects ranging from Cuba’s health care system to a recent government decision to take the American dollar out of circulation on the island.
Despite the positive vibes, Alvarez on the opening day of talks told the group that recent actions by the U.S. government prompted the Cuban government to buy some farm products from countries other than the United States.
Beginning a few weeks ago, some companies trading with Cuba found that payments made by the island were not being credited to bank accounts in the United States on instructions from the U.S. government.
The Treasury Department (news - web sites)‘s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which administers policy regarding a four-decade trade embargo against Cuba, has since let transactions proceed on a case-by-case basis.
The action led Cuba to buy 385,000 tons of products ó including wheat, corn, soy products, powdered milk and chicken ó from other countries, Alvarez said. The purchases meant U.S. companies missed out on about $100 million, he said.
“Food shouldn’t be used as a political instrument,” he told the AP.
Banks and the U.S. Treasury department have questions about whether a 2000 law permitting agricultural trade with Cuba requires that U.S. exporters be paid before shipping their products to Cuba.
Some exporters currently ship products to Cuba before getting paid, but Cuban importers do not get the goods until they pay the U.S. exporter.
Under an exception to the embargo, American agricultural goods can be sold to the island on a cash-only basis. Including this week’s deals, Cuba has contracted to buy more than $1 billion in American farm goods ó including shipping and hefty bank fees to send payments through third nations ó since it began taking advantage of the exception in 2001.