By Vanessa Arrington | Associated Press Writer
The governor of Maine, on his first trip to Havana, said the normalization of relations with communist Cuba must come “one step at a time” after signing a trade agreement Sunday with island authorities.
John Baldacci, the sixth U.S. governor to travel to Cuba, said he wanted Maine to be a leader in the process of further opening trade with the island.
“We’re working within the existing framework, trying to show other states the ability to trade with Cuba, and gain from Maine leadership,” Baldacci told a news conference. “We hope to demonstrate how important this is.”
Maine was the first state to publicly declare by legislative resolution in 2001 its support for bilateral trade with Cuba and urge an end to the decades-old U.S. embargo.
A law passed by Congress in 2000 allows American food to be sold directly to the island on a cash basis despite trade and travel sanctions. But Cuban exports are not allowed, and recent restrictions require the island to pay for the goods in full before they leave American ports.
U.S. farmers and politicians have become some of Cuba’s top lobbyists in the trade sphere, pushing for U.S. restrictions to be lifted.
Baldacci said Maine farmers and business representatives were in favor of his trip.
“All want to do business and build better relations with Cuba,” he said. “If we continue to take these steps, we will become much closer. One step at a time.”
Baldacci, who arrived to Havana early Sunday, led a trade mission of some 20 Maine delegates. The governor was scheduled to leave Monday morning, while the rest would stay through the week to hash out details on contracts.
“I am here because it is important for me to finalize the documents, to bring contracts to fruition, and to show my deep appreciation for (officials),” Baldacci said. “I am pleased and honored to be here.”
Alimport chair Pedro Alvarez, left, clasps hands with Maine Gov. John Baldacci, during a trade agreement signing in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2005. The governor of Maine, on his first trip to Havana, said the normalization of relations with communist Cuba must come ‘one step at a time’ after signing a trade agreement Sunday with island authorities. (AP Photo/Jorge Rey)
Alimport, Cuba’s food import company, agreed Sunday to buy Maine products worth $20 million by the end of July 2007. Sunday’s agreement, signed by Baldacci and Alimport chief Pedro Alvarez, includes a preliminary export agreement of $10 million Alimport signed with the state of Maine a year ago.
Alvarez said Cuba is interested in buying Maine-produced goods including seed potatoes, fish products, dairy cattle, lumber, utility poles, newsprint and alpaca fiber. The previous agreement covered exports of Maine apples, potatoes, eggs and maple syrup.
Contracts on some of those products were stalled this year because U.S. visas for Cuban agricultural inspectors didn’t come through in time, Alvarez said.
“Maine potato growers have also been impacted by the restrictions, not just Cuba,” Alvarez said.
Three U.S. governors have come to Cuba this year: Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana; Dave Heineman of Nebraska; and Baldacci.
George Ryan of Illinois was the first U.S. governor to come to the island on a similar trade mission back in 1999. He was followed by governors John Hoeven of North Dakota, and Jesse Ventura of Minnesota.