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Cuba expects up to US$150 million in new U.S. trade at farm gathering

Cuba expects up to US$150 million in new U.S. trade at farm gathering
Anita Snow
Canadian Press

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

(AP) – Communist Cuba expects to sign contracts for much as
US$150 million in American agricultural goods next week at the largest
gathering of U.S. farm producers here since Fidel Castro fell ill last

Pedro Alvarez, chairman of the island's company Alimport,
said that talks beginning Monday should produce enough deals to ensure
Cuba buys as much U.S. goods in 2007 as it did last year.

About 100 American farm groups and companies from 22 U.S. states are

In 2006, Cuba spent US$570 million for U.S. food and agricultural
products, including shipping and banking costs, Alvarez said in an
interview Tuesday. So far this year, his government has spent $225
million to purchase and import American goods.

"We are hoping that by the end of the coming week we will have between
$100 million to $150 million in new contracts," said Alvarez, adding he
expects as many as 250 Americans at the talks that will wind up with
contract signings on May 30.

Washington maintains a 45-year-old trade on the island, but U.S.
food and agricultural products can be sold directly to Cuba under a law
passed by the U.S. Congress in 2000.

Since Havana first took advantage of the law in 2001, it has spent more
than $2.2 billion on American farm products, including hefty
transportation and financing costs.

"We would buy double that if not for the restrictions," said Alvarez,
referring to American regulations that include time-consuming paperwork
and cash-only financing.

Castro often mingled with American farm producers during past gatherings
aimed at increasing U.S. sales to the island. At an agribusiness fair in
2002, he fed milk in a baby bottle to a buffalo calf from Minnesota,
greeted then-governor Jesse Ventura and penned some of the contracts to
buy American goods.

But the 80-year-old Castro has not been seen in public since July 31,
when he announced he had undergone emergency intestinal surgery and
provisionally ceded his duties to his younger brother Raul, the defense

Since then, he has been seen only in official photographs and
videotapes, but authorities report that he is getting better. In recent
weeks he has written a string of essays on international affairs, often
denouncing the use of food crops to produce ethanol.

During the only other large gathering of U.S. agribusiness interests in
Cuba following Castro's illness, fewer than 80 American farm groups and
companies converged here in November during the annual International
Fair of Havana.

Cuba generally uses the gatherings to register its objection to the U.S.
trade embargo, with American farm producers anxious to do more trade
with the island chiming in with their own objections.

Last week, producers from the United States and 23 Latin American
countries meeting in Mexico adopted a statement encouraging Congress to
eliminate U.S. trade and travel sanctions on Cuba.

"These restrictions prejudice significantly U.S. agricultural producers
as well as exporters, transporters and other related economic
activities," participants in the 1st Pan-American Rice Congress said.

As a preview to next week's gathering, North Dakota Agricultural
Commissioner Roger Johnson is leading a trade mission to the island this
week to discuss the possibility of selling potatoes to the island.

An Alabama trade mission arrives Friday. Alabama Department
spokeswoman Christy Rhodes Kirk said that the delegation, including
several state lawmakers, will help companies negotiate the sale of
products including poultry, lumber, utility poles, cotton, peanuts, fish
and snack foods.

Alimport's Alvarez said Cuba expects other large delegations from
Georgia, Florida and Mississippi, and smaller groups from California,
New York, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and Washington state.

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