First U.S. commercial food shipments in nearly 40 years arrive in communist Cuba

Monday, December 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HAVANA (AP) _ The first U.S. commercial food shipments arrived in communist Cuba on Sunday, raising hopes among people in both countries that the symbolic act will be a foot in the door to future trade.

Carrying 26,400 tons of American corn, the Mexican freighter M.V. Ikan Mazatlan passed the lighthouse built atop an old Spanish fortress at the entrance of Havana Bay and sliced through the blue waters on its way to port.

The freighter, which left New Orleans on Friday, was one of two ships that arrived in Havana with the first direct commercial agricultural exports from the United States to Cuba since 1963.

Earlier Sunday, a freighter operated by Crowley Liner Services of Jacksonville, Fla., arrived with about 500 tons of frozen chicken parts valued at about $300,000, said Pedro Alvarez Borrego, president of the Cuban government food import company Alimport.

The ship Express, flying a Liberian flag, left Gulfport, Miss., on Friday.

Representatives of American agribusiness and some U.S. officials hope the shipments will lead to increased trade with Cuba, eventually creating a new market for U.S. exports. Trade between the countries was extremely heavy before the U.S. government imposed trade sanctions on Fidel Castro's government nearly 40 years ago.

``We are heartened and cautiously optimistic,'' said Larry Cunningham, senior vice president of corporate communications for agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland of Decatur, Ill.

``This proves that it makes logical sense for Cuba and the United States to trade with one another,'' he said. ``We think that the best way to improve relations with countries is for them to become trading partners.''

Under its sales contract with Cuba, ADM is to send seven more shipments of wheat, soy, rice and other grains through the end of February, Cunningham said. The contracts have a combined market value of about $14 million, the company has said.

Sunday's shipment includes corn from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin.

Anti-Castro Cuban exiles say the direct sale of American food could erode the embargo.

Castro last week called the purchase ``a friendly response to a friendly gesture.'' He apparently was referring to the U.S. offer of humanitarian aid after Hurricane Michelle hit Cuba last month, destroying crops and thousands of homes. The offer was politely rejected, but Castro said more purchases would be possible if Washington allowed Cuba to sell its products in the United States.

Nearly all trade between the two nations is banned under the U.S. embargo. Congress passed a law last year that permitted the sale of American food to Cuba for humanitarian purposes but barred government and private U.S. financing of such sales.

For months, Cuba said it would not buy any food under the law, calling the financing restrictions onerous and urging United States to ease or end the embargo.