U.S. food exporters: End Cuba blockade

Three days of talks in Havana on U.S. food sales to Cuba between U.S. agribusiness representatives and leaders of Alimport, Cuba’s food importing company, ended May 30 with signed contracts worth $118 million and Cuban promises to top off the purchases at $150 million.

Executives of 114 companies from 25 U.S. states were on hand to set up exports of rice, wheat, corn, soy products, peas, eggs, chicken, pork, newsprint, lumber and more.

The U.S. delegation included five congresspersons, among them Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chairwoman of the House agricultural appropriations subcommittee; Jack Kingston (R-Ga.); Marion Berry (D-Ark.); Rodney Alexander (R-La.) and Bob Etheridge (D-N.C.). This was the second congressional group to visit Cuba in six months.

Food sales to Cuba, authorized by legislation passed in 2000, stand as an exception to a U.S. economic blockade against Cuba’s socialist revolution in force for 45 years. Since 2001, Cuba has spent $1.55 billion on U.S. farm products. In 2005, annual sales fell 10 percent to $350 million, followed in 2006 by sales worth $340 million. Imported food goes to the population at subsidized prices and to schools and workplaces, according to Commerce Minister Raul de la Nuez.

Alimport head Pedro Alvarez said, however, that U.S. farm exports could be doubled if Washington did not stipulate cash-only, pay-in-advance sales arranged through third-country banks. Financing charges, mainly through Canadian and French institutions, plus special ship licensing requirements, have added $110 million to Cuba’s costs.

Kirby Jones, who as president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association organized the delegation, said, “We have a situation where in practical terms, the executive branch is making the implementation of that law of the land as difficult as it possibly can be.”

A chorus of the visiting food industry executives denounced U.S. trade and travel restrictions. “We ask our Congress to lift the trade and travel restrictions,” noted Marvin Lehrer of the U.S. Rice Federation, adding that lifting restrictions “would allow Cuba the ability to generate more foreign exchange in order so they may buy more food products.” Alvarez suggested that opening up Cuba to North Americans tourists would expand imports through increased availability of U.S. currency.

The congressional delegation met with National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon and a representative of the Catholic Church in Havana. “I believe we ought to lift the embargo and have a free exchange of trade between Cuba and the United States,” declared Rep. DeLauro. Bob Etheridge from North Carolina concurred: “You have to start where you can and obviously the whole issue of agricultural trade is a good place to start.”

Arkansas’ Rep. Berry added, “You catch more flies with sugar than with vinegar. ... How many times do you get an opportunity to make friends ... where there is no risk to either party?”

The Senate Finance Committee has asked the U.S. International Trade Commission to investigate the adverse effects of economic sanctions against Cuba. A report is expected in late June.

Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Thomas Irvin said he wanted “honest trade with people who want to do business.” He observed, “We don’t think there is anything political about trade for food” — news, perhaps, to right-wing ideologues at the helm in Washington.

atwhit @megalink.net