- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 18, 2001

HAVANA Cuban strongman Fidel Castro removed a major obstacle to the first American food sales to Cuba in 40 years, saying yesterday that U.S. vessels from other countries could bring the goods to the communist island.
In a 41/2-hour speech that began late Friday night, Mr. Castro said he would abandon his insistence that the food be shipped on Cuban vessels. The United States had rejected that proposal.
Mr. Castro said the American products could be picked up by boats from other countries including the United States and added: "We are pursuing the rest of the paperwork for the purchases."
Cuba's plans to buy American food are certain to please U.S. agricultural companies, which have been lobbying the government here to make a symbolic purchase under a U.S. law passed last year. The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Congress approved food exports to Cuba in 2000, 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 after it was hit hard by Hurricane Michelle earlier this month. The government declined a U.S. offer of humanitarian aid, but proposed a one-time cash purchase of American food and medicine in the wake of the storm, which destroyed crops and homes 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 companies that produce either pharmaceuticals or medical supplies.
Cuba's request to buy specific items still must obtain final licensing approval from the U.S. government. Cuban officials have said they would pay for the goods in cash.
Anti-Castro groups in the United States have argued against any easing of the 40-year-old embargo, saying it would only prolong Mr. Castro's one-man rule, but business and agricultural interests have made steady progress on Capitol Hill in recent years.
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.


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