BY ANITA SNOW | The Associated Press
HAVANA - American farm leaders have called for an end to the U.S. trade embargo during talks this month with communist Cuba that have resulted in at nearly $110 million in new U.S. food sales to the island.
Interest by American food companies in doing more business to Cuba has grown even as the U.S. government tightens restriction on the island, including stepped-up enforcement of rules on American travel.
“Ending the embargo is the right thing to do,” Iowa Agriculture Secretary Patty Judge told a news conference. She said U.S. government restrictions on travel to Cuba by most Americans should also be eliminated.
“When Americans can finally come to Cuba on vacation, they might want steak, and we hope that steak is sourced from Iowa,” Judge told a news conference. “We see white tablecloth opportunities for our products here.”
Representing 147 agribusinesses, port authorities, supermarkets and other enterprises, the Americans traveled here for talks to mark the second anniversary of the first U.S. commercial food shipments to post-revolutionary Cuba.
That first shipment, $300,000 worth of chicken parts, sailed into Havana Bay from Gulfport, Miss., on Dec. 16, 2001.
Since, Cuba has contracted to buy more than $500 million in goods on a cash basis, communist officials say. An exception to U.S. trade sanctions against the island allow the direct commercial sales of U.S. agricultural goods, but prohibits American financing for the transactions.
Two week ago, Cuban officials reported another $25 million in new sales, bringing them closer to their goal of $130 million for the three days of talks. The products included powdered milk, cotton, chicken and soy.
Alabama Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks said he hoped that business relationships being formed between American farm representatives and Cuban officials would survive rocky U.S.-Cuba relations. The two countries have not had diplomatic ties for more than four decades.
“There could be policy set tomorrow that could take away the little trade we have now,” said Sparks. “But it cannot take away the relationships I’ve made with the Cuban people.”
On a recent night, flamenco dancers clapped and stomped and waiters served up Cuban steaks with California wine as Fidel Castro invited all 250 American farm representatives to a formal dinner that stretched into the early morning.
The 77-year-old bearded revolutionary wore a dark suit during the dinner at the Revolution Palace, where he keeps his offices and entertains visiting dignitaries, said Americans here for the talks.
The dinner that ended around 3 a.m. was the most elaborate in a string of meetings Castro has held with the U.S. visitors, demonstrating his desire to do business with Americans despite their government’s efforts to undermine him.
Several U.S. company representatives here said they hope to eventually invest in the island - something now strictly prohibited by trade sanctions first imposed in 1960 by the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“If relations normalized, Cargill would be interested in increasing its relations, including investment,” Thomas Rahn, commercial sales manager of the Minnetonka, Minn.-based agribusiness giant told The Associated Press. He cited food processing plants as one possibility.
Along with Archer Daniels Midland, of Decatur, Ill., Cargill Inc. is now one of Cuba’s most important American agricultural trade partners, contracting to sell another $25 million in soy and soy derivatives to the island.