LIBBY QUAID, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP)—U.S. companies sold food worth $138.6 million to Cuba in 2002 and are on track for a 19 percent increase in sales this year despite Fidel Castro’s recent crackdown on dissidents.
The Castro government’s behavior during the past month makes it unlikely that Congress will further relax the 42-year-old trade embargo against Cuba. It is equally unlikely that lawmakers will restrict sales of farm commodities to a nation that quickly has become a big customer of American wheat, corn, chicken, soybeans and rice.
Congress in 2000 allowed sales of U.S. farm commodities to Cuba but limited them to cash-only deals. That restriction actually has proved to be good for U.S. companies, said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
“Cuba is one of the safest export markets in the world for U.S. companies today, because the law requires cash-only transactions,” Kavulich said. “So there is no risk to exporting products to Cuba. No other country in the world that trades to Cuba can say that.”
The law does not limit the quantity or value of food and farm products that can be sold to Cuba, which became the 50th largest farm export market for U.S. companies in 2002, compared with No. 144 in 2001.
The promise of Cuba as an export market has won over growing numbers of congressional Republicans, particularly those from farm states where low prices and bad weather have squeezed farmers for six consecutive years.
Free-trade Republicans joined many Democrats in arguing for ending, or at least easing, trade restrictions against Cuba. They pointed out that U.S. penalties had failed to remove Castro from power and deprived American farmers of a potentially major customer.
“When we don’t sell wheat to Cuba, France does,” said Rep. Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas, the leading wheat-producing state. “The fallacy of unilateral embargoes, particularly for agricultural commodities, is that those products are there; they’re just being sold to Cuba by somebody else.”
Wheat was the No. 1 commodity sold to Cuba last year, accounting for nearly $23 million in sales. Corn was second at about the same amount, followed by poultry at nearly $22 million, soybean oil at $21 million, soybeans at nearly that amount and soybean oil cake at $19 million. Rice was No. 7 at $6 million.
It was Moran who, in a surprise move in 2000, forced a significant vote by the House in favor of ending trade restrictions against Cuba. Soon afterward, he traveled to Cuba and concluded the need to end sanctions went beyond his own constituents’ interests.
“It was very much an opportunity to bring greater freedom to the Cuban people. I still believe that personal freedom follows economic freedom,” Moran said.
In recent weeks, the Cuban government has executed three men convicted of terrorism in the attempted hijacking of a ferry filled with passengers bound for the United States, although the incident resulted in no injuries. Cuban prosecutors have also convicted 75 dissidents and imposed sentences from six years to 28 years.
Castro’s actions have led to harsh words from leaders of the effort in Congress to eliminate restrictions on U.S. trade and travel with Cuba, among them Rep. Jo Ann Emerson. The southeast Missouri Republican has visited Cuba three times, pushing for more trade because rice is grown in her district.
“Unfortunately, the latest actions by the Cuban government make it clear that they are more interested in suppressing freedom than promoting free trade, and that is simply unacceptable,” she said.
Bush strongly supports the embargo and has threatened to veto any bill to weaken trade restrictions.