By Marc Frank | Reuters
The United States will be Communist-run Cuba’s biggest food supplier this year, despite trade restrictions and onerous regulations, the head of the state’s food importing monopoly said on Friday.
Alimport Chairman Pedro Alvarez said in an interview that about $500 million of his $1.5 billion budget this year went to buy U.S. cereals, grains, poultry and other products. That compares with second place Vietnam at more than $150 million, in large part due to its sale of 600,000 tonnes of rice to the Caribbean island.
China, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and some European countries were important suppliers as well, Alvarez said, with many at around $100 million.
Food sales to Cuba on a cash basis only were approved by Congress in 2000 as an exception to the U.S. trade embargo enforced against President Fidel Castro’s leftist government since 1962.
In five years, Cuba has become the 26th largest market for American agricultural exports, up from 225th, purchasing more than 6 million tonnes of products valued at more than $1 billion, Alvarez said.
Early this year the Bush administration announced tougher payment procedures that require letters of credit before shipments can leave U.S. ports.
“The food we buy goes directly to our people and the measure created delays and insecurity, forcing us to divert $150 million to other suppliers,” Alvarez said, insisting existing restrictions meant Cuban food purchases were half of what they could be.
Nevertheless, it appears the United States will once again dominate the Cuban market again in 2006, he said.
Alvarez said that during this week’s Havana International Trade Fair, with more than 150 U.S. companies in attendance. Alimport had purchased a million tonnes of U.S. products, valued at $180 million, for delivery next year.
At least half the contracts went to such big agribusinesses as Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and FC Stone, he said.
Cuba has purchased products from more than 100 U.S. companies in more than 30 states, but at least 80 percent of the trade is with around 15 big corporations, according to the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which monitors the business.