By Marc Frank | Reuters
HAVANA - Attracted by a once forbidden market and the allure of cash for their goods, 400 representatives of the U.S. agriculture industry huddled on Tuesday with Cuban purchasing agents interested in buying $100 million of American food products.
Despite U.S. President George W. Bush’s efforts to tighten economic sanctions against Cuba’s Communist government, businessmen and women from more than 150 U.S. companies attended the meeting organized by Alimport, Cuba’s state-run food import company.
“Trade offers us hope and opportunity,” Idaho Republican Rep. C.L. “Butch” Otter, said in remarks to the gathering.
Alimport President Pedro Alvarez said, “We have signed $120 million in contracts so far this year.” He promised to sign another $100 million in deals this week.
Decatur, Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland Company signed an agreement on Tuesday for $8.9 million worth of corn and Arkansas-based Riceland Foods for $3 million in rice.
California Democratic Reps. Loretta and Linda Sanchez also inked a deal with Alimport, which committed to buying $10 million in agricultural goods from their state.
In 2000, a loosening of the U.S. trade embargo allowed food sales to Cuba. Since then, Cuba has paid more than $600 million in cash for agricultural products, turning the political foes into economic friends.
Last year, the Bush administration denied a U.S. company permission to organize a U.S. agricultural trade fair in Havana. The United States also cracked down on Americans traveling to Cuba without Washington’s permission and tightened restrictions for authorized travel.
In December, the Bush administration pulled out of immigration talks, the only regular contacts the two governments had since the U.S. broke diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961.
Kirby Jones, a U.S. consultant for agribusinesses and ports, characterized the meeting as “an act of defiance by mainstream Americans.”
Jones charged the Bush administration was trying to sabotage the food trade by limiting the number of visits port officials can make to Cuba to negotiate agreements for the food shipments.
The United States was Cuba’s seventh-largest trading partner in 2003, while Cuba became the United States’ 35th largest agricultural market.