By JOHN RICE | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
HAVANA—If American tourists return to Cuba someday, they could find themselves sipping pina coladas and strawberry daiquiris flavored in Florida.
A fruit drinks company from Fort Lauderdale was one of nine U.S. companies that signed contracts Monday with Alimport, Cuba’s state import company, in a demonstration of the communist government’s determination to keep ties open with American capitalists.
“I’m an American businessman exporting capitalism and helping our export deficit and our U.S. economy,” said Richard N. Waltzer, president of Splash Tropical Drinks, which won a $500,000 deal with Alimport.
Until Waltzer arrived in Cuba, “on a tropical island, the jewel of the Caribbean, you could not get a strawberry daiquiri,” said Bob Guilmartin, Splash’s director of Cuba sales.
Alimport chief Pedro Alvarez said he had signed deals with nine U.S. companies for $25 million in solid sales on Monday and another $11 million as agreements in principle - though the latter are likely to be derailed by continuing U.S. restrictions.
None of the companies was new to Cuba, but the agreements showed Cuba’s determination to keep wooing U.S. business even though legal restrictions force it to pay cash, without even temporary financing of deals.
The idea of sales to Cuba has helped win the support of farm state congressmen and senators for measures that would end the 42-year U.S. embargo of Cuba. A 2000 law eased the embargo slightly by allowing the direct sales of American farm products to the island.
Both the U.S. House and Senate have voted to block enforcement of U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba next year, though White House officials have threatened to make that issue the first veto of President Bush’s administration.
At least 60 other U.S. companies were attending Cuba’s largest annual trade fair and several businessmen said they expected to sign contracts before the event ends on Sunday.
Even those who have limited hopes for immediate sales were building relations for the future.
While Cuba has bought millions of dollars of U.S. rice over the past two years, Alvarez said U.S. prices were currently “at a peak,” making current deals difficult. But he said more sales could occur as costs decline sometimes next year.
A rice-heavy died made Cuba the biggest foreign market for U.S. rice before the embargo was imposed and Alvarez said he could see buying 200,000 to 250,000 tons of U.S. rice a year.
That would near 10 percent of current U.S. rice exports “so that’s very significant,” said Terry L. Harris, a vice president of Riceland Foods, based in Stuttgart, Ark., a major producer.
After signing deals for wheat and textured soy protein with Cargill Inc. Vice President Jim Bohlander, Alvarez said that the $4 million-plus contract “is one more step in the normalization of relations” between the two countries.
Alvarez said that as of Monday, Cuba has signed $554 million in contracts with U.S. companies since 2001, a figure that includes shipping. He said that just over $500 million of that would have been completed by December.
Michael J. Lanahan of Jacksonville, Fla., agreed to sell about $5.5 million worth of yellow pine timber and said it was his fourth contract in Cuba.
Carolina Turkey signed a contract for about 2,000 tons of ground and frozen turkeys. Iowa-based FC Stone LLC - representing 750 U.S. farm cooperatives - signed a deal for about $4 million of soybeans.