Cuban President Fidel Castro's government was expected to buy more U.S. food products this week, as executives of major poultry producers headed to Havana, a group that tracks U.S.-Cuba trade relations said on Monday.
``Representatives from Gold Kist, Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, and ConAgra Foods Inc. among others, will be in Cuba for talks with state food importer Alimport,'' John Kavulich, head of the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, told Reuters in a phone interview.
Alimport last week hosted representatives from agribusiness firms Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., Cargill Inc., and Riceland Foods, Inc. among others, signing contracts to purchase wheat, corn, rice, soy, and vegetable oil in the first commercial transactions between the two countries since Washington slapped a trade embargo on the Caribbean island some 40 years ago soon after Castro took power. Trade between the two countries was fully halted in 1962.
Cuba turned down a U.S. offer of aid but sought to buy U.S. food on an emergency basis after being devastated by Hurricane Michelle earlier this month. The purchases were possible since Washington eased its embargo last year to allow cash sales of food and medicines to Havana.
The U.S. Commerce Department must still give final approval to the sales. The State Department said it would support them because of their humanitarian nature.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Anne Veneman said earlier this month that the proposed purchases were worth about $30 million (34 million euros).
Alimport's shopping list includes 20,000 tonnes of rice, 10,000 tonnes of wheat flour, 40,000 tonnes of animal feed, 17,000 tonnes of soy products, 40,000 tonnes of wheat, 6,000 tonnes of chicken leg quarters, 1,500 tonnes of powdered milk, dried beans, cooking oil, and wood products, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
``Most of the products were contracted for last week with delivery scheduled for December into March. The companies going to Cuba now will be looking to sell the 6,000 tonnes of chicken valued at around $6.7 million, among other things,'' said Kavulich, whose organisation provides non-partisan commercial information on Cuba.
He added that Cuba was also shopping for various medicines and raw materials to manufacture medicines.
The extraordinary deals came after Cuba appealed to Washington to speed up authorisation to buy food and medicines from the United States on a one-time basis to replenish stocks used after its worst storm in half a century.
Hurricane Michelle struck central Cuba on Nov. 4, killing five people, flattening thousands of houses, and severely damaging crops earmarked for both export and local needs.
Washington had first offered to send humanitarian aid via nongovernmental bodies, but Havana replied with a polite refusal and a counteroffer to buy food and medicines with cash.
The United States loosened its trade sanctions on various countries last year, including Cuba, allowing for the purchase of food and medicines. But in communist-run Cuba's case what many in both countries consider cumbersome licensing procedures were left in place and U.S. financing of the trade banned - which in Cuba's view posed too much of an obstacle for sales.
Castro charged at the time the measure was discriminatory and unworkable. He pledged his country would not buy ``a single grain of rice or aspirin,''a position Cuban officials insist has not changed despite their country's post-Michelle purchases.
U.S. and Cuban officials have sought to dampen speculation that the trade signals a significant change in their often hostile relations.
``It's an isolated fact. We have no reason to see it as a policy shift, rather as something that happened because of a hurricane that doesn't happen every month in Cuba,'' Vice President Carlos Lage told reporters over the weekend after attending a regional summit in Lima, Peru.
Nevertheless some Western diplomats said they viewed the sales as a watershed event.
``I'm telling my government this could be the beginning of the end of the embargo and they had better start considering other products than food to sell to Cuba,'' a European diplomat said.