- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 26, 2002

American farmers and ranchers are charging into Cuba, emboldened by a 2-year-old law that allows sales of food and medical products to the country.
Business representatives from around the nation today will gather in Havana for an exhibition of products from the United States and elsewhere, amid widespread enthusiasm for a market that has been closed to U.S. producers for 40 years. Fidel Castro's heavily indebted communist regime is paying the bills punctually.
"We're continuing to ship," said Welcome Sauer, president of the Washington Apple Commission, a state-backed marketing group. "The business has been steady and our people have gotten paid."
Greg Johnson, a salesman with Premier Pulses International in Minot, N.D., said his company has had a "fine experience" with Cuba. It has sold about $1 million worth of yellow and green peas to the communist nation this year, amounting to 15 percent of the company's annual sales.
American companies have been seeing the best side of trade with Cuba, according to people who follow the issue. Steady purchases from the United States and prompt payment have convinced many businesses that Mr. Castro is trying to put the best face on Cuban-American trade.
In contrast, some companies from Canada and the country's export-financing agency have seen Cuba default on loans and fail to make scheduled payments. One company has resorted to impounding Cuban ships around the world to collect on a $3 million bill.
"It's true that the Cubans have stiffed other countries," said Pete Kasperowicz, publisher of the newsletter Cuba Trader, which covers commercial ties with the United States. "[But] there's no financing exposure for American companies right now."
Canadian farmers, like their American counterparts, have not reported problems with Cuba.
Legislation passed in late 2000 eased a U.S. embargo against Cuba by allowing sales of food and medicine. It superseded a law that permitted sales only to private entities, a restriction that put a damper on business, because only the government has enough hard currency to make major purchases.
Shipments began in earnest after Hurricane Michelle battered parts of the island nation in November and forced Havana to go abroad for vital foodstuffs.
In the first half of 2002, U.S. companies earned more than $80 million from sales to Cuba, according to John Skorburg, a senior economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. By the end of the year, that number should hit $125 million.
American companies will have captured 15 percent of the roughly $1 billion Cuban market in one year, Mr. Skorburg said.
American farmers have had no problems getting their money, thanks to laws governing Cuban-American trade.
The law easing the embargo provides that sales can be made only for hard cash, delivered upfront. Thus, American farmers and ranchers must receive full payment before they can release the goods to the Cuban government.
Mr. Sauer called the financing system "a bit convoluted," but said it was working. Typically, international trade is conducted by extending credit to the buyer, who often enjoys stretched-out terms of payment even after goods are delivered.
The Bush administration has taken a dim view of the burgeoning trade with Cuba and the convention in Havana, though the convention's organizers did obtain the necessary permit from the U.S. government to operate in Cuba. They also scored a public relations coup when Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, an independent, agreed to attend.
Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, called Mr. Castro a "self-declared enemy of the United States" and urged Minnesotans to abstain from "sexual tourism" patronizing prostitutes in Cuba. Mr. Ventura has demanded an apology.
Canada, a country that has traded freely with Cuba for decades, has had mixed results.
Canada's Export Development Agency, a government office that helps finance exports, has had serious problems. The country owes the agency more than $100 million, and Canada has not done much business with the Caribbean nation recently, said spokesman Rod Giles.
But Mr. Giles added that the agency will consider new loans for Cuban projects if they include ways to safeguard repayment, such as having money deposited in advance in offshore bank accounts. A loan the agency made to help build an airport in Havana has turned out well, he said.
"We're not in the business of actively promoting trade that's not our role," Mr. Giles said. "With respect to Cuba, we neither encourage, nor discourage trade. We will look at each transaction."
The Canadian Wheat Board, the government agency that markets Canadian grains in world markets, has sold "small amounts" to Cuba, said spokeswoman Louise Waldman. But it has had no problems obtaining payment from the Cuban government.

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