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Cuba seeks food, medical supplies from the United States

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Reeling from Hurricane Michelle, Cuba has opened talks with the United States for the purchase of millions of dollars worth of food and medicine, administration and congressional sources said Thursday.

Although the U.S. embargo against Cuba has been in effect for 40 years, purchases of medical supplies have been legal since 1992. Exports of food to Cuba were authorized by Congress last year.

Cuban President Fidel Castro had ruled out food purchases because no American financing is permitted. But Castro has made an exception because of the devastation of Hurricane Michelle, which destroyed hundreds of thousands of houses and vast tracts of farmland.

Cuba's problems have been aggravated by economic problems resulting partly from a tourism decline dating from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. The attacks have led to a tourism slump worldwide.

Cuban officials have presented a list of goods for examination by U.S. officials and also have been in contact with 15 agricultural companies and 15 firms that produce either pharmaceuticals or medical supplies, the sources said.

The U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, Inc., which follows economic developments in Cuba for U.S. corporations, said Cuba is seeking wheat, soy, flour, corn, and rice and may also be in the market for wood products, baby food, powdered milk, poultry, cooking oil, beans, antibiotics and vaccines.

Estimates of the total value of the products requested range from $3 million to $10 million. If approved, the goods will be shipped on U.S. or third-country vessels. The United States rejected a Cuban request that the goods be transported on Cuban ships.

Pamela Falk, a law professor and consultant to several grain and producer groups, said Cuba made an exception to its ban on U.S. food imports shortly after the hurricane by making modest deals with smaller U.S. agriculture producers. It is now looking for purchases on a much larger scale.

Falk said the hurricane provided Cuba with a face-saving way of getting a foot in the door of the U.S. market. But Cuban diplomats have told State Department officials they don't expect the current round of purchases to be repeated.

Sally Grooms Cowal, president of the anti-embargo Cuba Policy Foundation, said she hopes the prospective transactions are just the beginning.

The Cuban initiative ``is a breaking of the logjam that enables us to move forward,'' she said.

Dennis Hays, executive vice president of the pro-embargo Cuban-American National Foundation, noted that Cuba had rejected a recent U.S. offer of assistance channeled directly to the Cuban people through international and other intermediaries.

Hays said it was surprising that ``cash-starved Cuba'' would rebuff the gesture and wind up paying cash for the same products the U.S. was offering.

Cuban-born Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fl., said, ``Despite his repeated prior declarations that he would never make such a purchase agricultural products from the U.S. unless the embargo was lifted, the abrupt turnaround by Castro shows extreme desperation and a desire to divert attention, in the wake of Sept. 11, from Cuba's links to the global terrorist network.''
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