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U.S. is the top food source for Cuba

March 26, 2007|From the Associated Press

HAVANA — Since 2003, one country has been the main supplier of food to Fidel Castro's Cuba: the United States.

Surprised? You have good company.

Many Americans think their government's 45-year-old embargo blocks all trade with the communist government, but the United States is the top supplier of food and agricultural products to Cuba.

In fact, many Cubans depend on rations grown in Arkansas and North Dakota for their rice and beans.

Since late 1999, governors, senators and members of Congress from at least 28 states have visited Cuba, most to talk trade. They keep coming: Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman was flying in Sunday with a farm delegation. Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter of Idaho plans a visit next month.

Washington's sanctions choke off most trade with Cuba, but a law passed by Congress in 2000 authorized cash-only purchases of U.S. food and agricultural products. It was cheered by major farm firms such as Archer Daniels Midland Co. interested in the untapped Cuban market.

Cuba refused to import one grain of rice for more than a year because of a dispute over financing, but it finally agreed to take advantage of the law after Hurricane Michelle in November 2001 cut into its food stocks.

Since then, Cuba has paid more than $1.5 billion for American food and agricultural products, said John Kavulich, senior policy advisor at the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council of New York.

The $340 million in exports in 2006 represented a drop of about 3% from 2005, which was down from nearly $392 million in 2004. Kavulich said the decline was caused mostly by generous subsidies and credits from Venezuela and China.

But the U.S. remains on top. Its main exports to Cuba include chicken, wheat, corn, rice and soybeans -- much of it doled out to Cubans on the government ration. The U.S. also sends Cuba brand-name cola, mayonnaise, hot sauce and candy bars, as well as dairy cows.

Don Mason of the Iowa Corn Growers Assn. said he was "less than optimistic" that Washington would make it easier to trade with Cuba any time soon. He said the association shipped about 450,000 metric tons of corn to the island each year.

Any significant change in U.S. policy would be difficult under the 1996 Helms-Burton law, which prohibits normalization of relations with Cuba as long as 80-year-old Fidel Castro or his brother Raul are in charge.

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