From: Reuters
Published January 21, 2008 07:41 PM

California sends first trade mission to Cuba

HAVANA (Reuters) - California, the top U.S. food producing state, has sent its first official agricultural trade mission to communist Cuba, looking to tap a potential $180 million food market.

While other U.S. states have pushed ahead in selling Cuba an average $350 million per year in agricultural products, mainly grains, California is a late arrival. Californian companies sold products worth just $735,000 to Cuba in 2006.

"Some of us might be a little late in getting here, but we are here," California Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura told reporters in Havana.

Kawamura is leading a delegation of companies seeking Cuban contracts for dairy products, wine, grapes, figs, nuts and other specialty fruits. So far, Cuba has bought powdered milk and rice from California, and some wine and apples.

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U.S. food sales to Cuba were allowed in 2000 under an exception to the trade embargo Washington has maintained since 1962 against Fidel Castro's government.

In seven years, American food sales, not counting freight and insurance, have amounted to almost $2 billion.

Kawamura said a recent study showed Cuba imports an estimated $180 million worth of products that Californian farmers and ranchers could supply.

"California finally is getting off the dime and into trade with Cuba," said Greg Estevane, whose company Global Strategies has sold Californian wine and tomato paste to Cuba.

Estevane said that was because the Bush administration is on the way out and the financial restrictions it introduced on business with Cuba may be lifted.

Cuban purchases of U.S. agricultural products rose in value last year, but that was due to higher prices, according to the head of Cuba's food import agency Alimport, Pedro Alvarez.

"The volume of U.S. food sales will remain stagnant and long as the blockade is not lifted," Alvarez, referring to an embargo that bans two-way trade and American tourism in Cuba.

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle)

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