BY ANITA SNOW
HAVANA - The United States was Cuba’s No. 1 source of imported food last year and is projected to remain the island’s top provider of farm products in 2003 as Fidel Castro’s government keeps buying American chicken, corn and wheat.
‘‘The United States is likely to remain Cuba’s primary source of imported agricultural products this year,’’ John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said in an interview from New York on Friday.
The council, a private, not-for-profit corporation, is a clearinghouse of information on U.S.-Cuba commerce. Kavulich projected that American food sales in Cuba this year could increase by as much as 20 percent over those in 2002, the first full year that Cuba took advantage of an exception to the U.S. embargo that allows American food sales on a cash-only basis.
‘‘As long as Cuba has a political reason to keep buying, it will,’’ Kavulich said.
As anti-embargo forces in the United States battle to further chip away at the four-decade-old trade and travel sanctions, Cuba can encourage them by showing that it has the political will—and the cash—to keep buying U.S. farm products at or above 2002 levels, Kavulich said.
Figures released by Kavulich’s council this week show that at least $138 million worth of farm products—more than a quarter of the more than $450 million in agricultural goods that Cuba imported last year—came from the United States.
Even with the cash-only sales, figures show that the United States is pushing aside some of Cuba’s traditional sources of imported food, which have included Brazil, Canada, France, Mexico and Spain.
The USDA figures for the first nine months of 2002 showed China, with nearly $70 million in sales through the end of September, emerging as Cuba’s number-two source of farm-product imports. France was third with $46.8 million, a 45.27 percent drop in sales from 2001.