- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 2, 2003

HAVANA — Florida fruit juices and North Carolina turkey are among products American companies are exhibiting in Cuba this week as they press to sell more farm products to the communist island.

Grouped inside a stand at the International Fair of Havana, which opened yesterday afternoon, the 71 American firms from 18 states and Puerto Rico hope their displays will persuade Cuban officials to buy more under an exception in a 42-year-old U.S. trade embargo.

“We’re hoping to sell more apples, grapes, pears and dried fruits,” said Miguel Mauricio, president of Florida Produce, a Tampa, Fla.-based wholesale fruit and vegetable company.

The trade fair, which runs through Sunday, comes as Congress is trying to open Cuba to American travelers, a move that goes against both White House efforts to enforce a travel ban and U.S. policy of isolating the communist country.

On Thursday, the Senate voted 59-36 to bar the use of government money to enforce current travel restrictions. The House last month also voted to ease travel restrictions, but the White House has threatened a veto and recently moved to step up enforcement of the travel ban.

This year’s American presence doesn’t compete with the number of U.S. firms that took part in a U.S. food and agricultural exhibition held here a little more than a year ago. It featured 288 exhibitors from 33 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

In past years, one or two American companies would sign up for this fair. The increased U.S. presence shows that American firms want to keep selling — and Cuban officials want to keep buying, Mr. Mauricio said.

“We welcome all American companies wanting to sell,” said Pedro Alvarez, president of the Cuban food import company Alimport.

The fair will feature products from more than 600 companies from about 50 nations. American exhibitors include the USA Rice Federation, Carolina Turkey of Mount Olive, N.C., and Splash Tropical Drinks of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Mr. Alvarez said Cuba was hoping this week to sign contracts to buy more than $50 million more in American farm products, including cereals and livestock.

Cuba initially refused to buy “a single grain of rice” under a 2000 law that legalized the direct sales of American farm products to the island.

However, when U.S. officials offered Havana aid after Hurricane Michelle hit the island in late 2001, Cuban officials saw it as a goodwill gesture. They declined the aid, but said they would buy American food under the law to replenish depleted stockpiles.

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