Thursday, March 29, 2007

Nebraska Governor Told Cubans Would Buy More

Official says if embargo were lifted, Cuba would spend more on U.S. products

Updated 03/28/2007 11:03:11 PM CDT from Kearney (Nebraska) Hub

HAVANA (AP) — Cuba has spent $108 million so far this year on American food and agricultural products and associated logistical costs, but would have spent far more if not for Washington’s 45-year-old embargo, a top official said Tuesday.

Pedro Alvarez, director of the island’s food import company, Alimport, made the announcement as he signed agreements to purchase an additional $15.75 million worth of wheat and pork from Nebraska producers. He said Cuba spent $560 million on U.S. food and agricultural products and associated shipping and other costs last year, and more than $2.2 billion since December 2001.

The embargo prohibits most American travel and trade to Cuba, but a law passed by Congress in 2000 permitted Fidel Castro’s government to directly purchase U.S. farm goods on a cash-only basis. Havana at first rejected the measure, but began taking advantage of it in late 2001.

Alvarez said that if the embargo were lifted, U.S.-Cuba trade in goods and services — including tourism — could balloon to $21 billion in the first five years.

“Alimport keeps the door open to American exporters, but sadly their own laws prohibit doing business with Cuba,” he said.

Even though America is the island’s leading source of food and agricultural products, Alvarez said Cuba can never be sure Washington will allow its country’s exporters to make good on contracts they sign with Havana. He said U.S. powdered milk and other perishables had spoiled on ships in Cuban ports because American authorities held up cash payments sent from the island.

“Even though American companies are efficient in providing their products, there continue to be too many uncertainties for us,” he said. “We never know when a shipment is going to be held up and that can’t be.”

Despite his complaints about U.S.-Cuba policy, Alvarez was careful not to say Cuba would consider severing all trade relations with the United States.

“I haven’t said that. I said this uncertainty has made increased growth in sales more difficult and that this uncertainty has placed U.S. producers at a complete disadvantage with relation to Cuba,” he said.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, in Havana to help negotiate Tuesday’s agreements, was making his third visit to Cuba since taking office a bit more than two years ago.

He said that “in spite of the challenges between our two countries, and how we export products down here, we intend to increase the number of Nebraska products sold.”

During a ceremony to sign the contracts, Heineman sat in a chair behind a small American flag, while officials placed a miniature Cuban flag in front of Alvarez.

U.S. medical supplies have been legally exported to Cuba since 1992, and Heineman said that state officials began initial discussions to allow Nebraska companies to tap into that market.

“We look forward to additional agreements in the future,” Heineman said.

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