Americans to Push U.S. Food in Cuba

.c The Associated Press

HAVANA (AP) - Cuban President Fidel Castro fed milk to a buffalo calf from Minnesota and greeted Gov. Jesse Ventura and top American food producers Thursday at a huge exhibition aimed at opening the communist island to U.S. food sales.

The 76-year-old revolutionary leader signed a $10 million contract to buy U.S. rice, cooking oil and soy from an Illinois-based company. He also quipped that he had a deal for the new U.S. diplomat here, Interests Section Chief James Cason.

``If we don't pay, we'll give him $100 million,'' said Castro of Cason, who warned exhibitors Wednesday night that Cuban doesn't pay its debts.

Displays at the U.S. Food and Agribusiness Exhibition, which began Thursday in Havana, included pastries from Sara Lee Foods of Ohio, wines from Washington state, Splash Tropical Drinks of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and cheese, butter and margarine from Land O'Lakes, Inc., of Arden Hills, Minn.

Exhibition organizer Peter Nathan wished the 288 American exhibitors luck in making new sales and invited them to ``take the message back home that the Cuban market is a fertile area for American companies to do business.''

``We today open a new chapter in our relationship with Cuba,'' said G. Allen Andreas, chairman and chief executive of Illinois-based agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, or ADM, lead sponsor of the show. ADM, the world's largest producer of soybeans, corn, wheat and cocoa, has been especially bullish about trying to open up the Cuban market to American food producers.

Castro, who has ruled Cuba since 1959, did not speak at the inauguration of the event, which Cuban officials hope will help strengthen pressure to ease or eliminate four decades of American restrictions on trade and travel with the Caribbean nation. Surrounded by his security men and trailed by a clutch of photographers and cameramen, the Cuban leader tasted a chocolate milk shake as he was led down the aisles of the exhibition hall.

``We favor free trade and normalization of travel between Cuba and the United States,'' Pedro Alvarez, head of the Cuban food import firm Alimport, told exposition participants.

President Bush, who counts on political support from Cuban exiles in south Florida, says he will not allow any easing of restrictions until Cuba embraces democratic and economic reforms. But a growing number of lawmakers from farm states, including many Republicans, support legislative efforts to ease or eliminate the restrictions.

U.S. lawmakers have been fiercely debating whether to ease the embargo and rules barring most Americans from traveling to Cuba. Some have also made attempts - thus far unsuccessful - to allow for American financing of food sales.

The exhibitors came from 33 U.S. states, with Florida having the most exhibiters with 32, followed by Illinois with 21.

Castro on Thursday signed the first contract, for Alimport to buy $10 million in rice, cooking oil and soy from ADM.

He also signed contracts for Alimport to buy $10,000 of red apples from Bowman Apple Products of Virginia, and another for an unspecified value of shipping services from Crowley Liner Services of Jacksonville, Fla., which has transported much of the American food here in recent months.

Cuban officials say they intend to keep buying American food with cash, but could buy even more if they could get U.S. financing for those deals.

A U.S. law that took effect in 2000 allows for direct commercial sales of American food and other agricultural products to Cuba on a cash basis. It's an exception to the 40-year trade embargo against the island.

Cason told American exhibitors Wednesday night that they should not support moves to allow U.S. financing for the deals, saying that the island nation is a ``deadbeat'' when it comes to paying its debts.

``I think it's great to sell eggs for cash, but let's not leave U.S. taxpayers with a big giant goose egg,'' Cason told reporters at a Havana hotel.

He estimated the communist-run island's current foreign debt at $11 billion and ``we don't want to be in that queue.''

Since November, when Cuba began taking advantage of the U.S. law, it has purchased more than $140 million worth of American food, including rice, wheat, beans, peas, pork lard, apples, and some brand name packaged products. Alvarez said Cuba has made all its payments on time.