Castro says he will allow American boats to bring food and medicine to Cuba

Saturday, November 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HAVANA (AP) _ The first American food sales to Cuba in four decades came closer to reality early Saturday when President Fidel Castro said the products could be transported to the communist island in boats from the United States or other countries.

In a speech that began Friday night and continued into the early hours of Saturday, Castro said Cuba would abandon its insistence that the merchandise be picked up and brought to Cuba on Cuban vessels. The United States had rejected that proposal.

Congress approved food exports to Cuba last year, easing a trade embargo imposed in 1961 _ but watered down the measure by prohibiting the U.S. financing of such transactions. Enraged by that restriction, Cuba said it would not buy any food until sanctions were eased more.

Cuba softened that stance in recent days, proposing a one-time cash purchase of American food and medicine after politely declining the U.S. offer of humanitarian aid in the wake of Hurricane Michelle, which devastated central Cuba on Nov. 4.

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 purchase _ which is subject to U.S. approval _ will allow Cuba ``to immediately create new reserves'' of emergency food and medicine for any future natural disasters, Castro said. He said Cuba appreciates the U.S. aid offer and repeated his call for an easing of the sanctions.

``We hope for a continual lessening of the obstacles that exist and that one day the blockade will disappear,'' Castro said in his speech at a regional trade forum.

He said the American products could be picked up by boats from other countries _ including the United States _ and added that ``we are pursuing the rest of the paperwork for the purchases.''

Castro has not said exactly what Cuba wants to buy, how much it will cost or when the U.S. products would be brought to Cuba. Cuba has said it would pay cash for the goods, whose value has been estimated at $3 million to $10 million.

The U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which monitors the trade situation between the two countries, has said Cuba is seeking to purchase products such as wheat, soy, flour, corn and rice, and possibly wood, baby food, powdered milk, cooking oil, beans, antibiotics and vaccinations.

Cuban purchases of U.S. medical supplies have been legal since 1992.