Just days before an American presidential election whose outcome could alter US-Cuba relations, communist officials were designing deals to buy $US150 million ($A201.48 million) more in corn, wheat, cattle and other American farm products at a trade fair opening Monday.
Agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland of Illinois, Tyson Foods of Arkansas, Splash Tropical Drinks of Florida, Marsh Supermarkets of Indiana and White Rose Foods of New Jersey were among 125 American companies participating in the weeklong International Fair of Havana.
“This is happening at a crucial moment, during elections in the United States,” Pedro Alvarez, chairman of the Cuban food import company Alimport said Saturday after inspecting stands at the exposition centre where the Americans will display food samples.
“Many companies and their people will come after the elections,” so they don’t miss the chance to vote Tuesday, Alvarez said.
Alvarez declined to talk about the US presidential candidates or express a preference.
Democratic contender John Kerry has said he would maintain more than four decades of trade sanctions against Cuba if elected president. But many on the island believe any change to reverse the US government’s increasingly tough policies on Cuba would be more likely with Kerry in the White House.
US President George W. Bush has steadily tightened restrictions on Cuba over the past four years, making it virtually impossible for most Americans to travel here legally, and tightening loopholes through which US dollars have filtered into the country despite sanctions.
“They think that if Bush is re-elected it will be much more difficult to use the (American) food sales and agricultural sales to influence policy toward Cuba,” said John Kavulich, president of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which tracks business between the two countries. Lawmakers in American farm states have lobbied on behalf of their constituents for an easing of the US sanctions.
“A victory by Kerry could be seen as an opportunity for change, or at least the reversal of additional restrictions put in place over the summer,” Kavulich added.
While the four-decade old trade embargo hurts Cuba,” it also has a serious impact on Americans, too,” Alvarez said.
Under an exception to the US sanctions, American food may be sold directly to Cuba on a cash basis.
Since Cuba began taking advantage of the exception in 2001, it has contracted to buy more than $US900 million ($A1.21 billion) in American farm goods, including shipping and hefty bank fees to send payments through third nations.
As of September 1, American food producers had received $US704.3 million ($A946.0 million) from Cuba for the deals, minus the extra costs, the trade and economic council said in its most recent newsletter.
As of the first eight months of this year, Cuba was placed at No. 22 of 225 foreign agricultural markets for the United States, Kavulich said. That is way up from last year, when Cuba was placed at No. 35 for foreign agricultural markets.
The Cuban government’s announcement last week that it was eliminating US dollars from general circulation on the island will have no impact on the sales, said Alvarez.
He said the move to replace American money with a local currency called the convertible Cuban peso, and discourage importation of more dollars will not affect the island’s ability to pay for American food and other imports with other types of foreign exchange, such as the euro.
Those payments are made through banks in third countries such as France - because the embargo prohibits payments directly to the United States - they are often more easily made in other euros or other foreign currencies anyhow, Alvarez said.
The more than 200 Americans expected later in the week from 26 states, Puerto Rico and Washington are among more than 1,000 business people from 45 countries that have signed up to participate in the fair. The state with the largest participation is Florida, with 27 companies represented.
Other countries showing a wide range of products at the trade fair include China, Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela.