Castro clears obstacle to American food sales to Cuba

Sunday, November 18, 2001

HAVANA -- Fidel Castro removed a major obstacle to the first American food sales to Cuba in 40 years, saying Saturday that U.S. ships or vessels from other countries can bring the goods to the communist island.

In a 4 1/2-hour speech that began late Friday, Castro said he would abandon his insistence that the food be shipped on Cuban vessels. The United States had rejected that idea.

Castro said the American products could be picked up by boats from other countries -- including the United States -- and added that "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 firms, 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 U.S. financing. 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. 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 destroyed homes on Nov. 4.

The purchase will allow Cuba "to immediately create new reserves" of emergency food and medicine for any future natural disasters, Castro said. He said Cuba appreciates the U.S. aid offer and repeated his call for easing sanctions.

"We hope for a continual lessening of the obstacles that exist and that one day the blockade will disappear," Castro said at a regional trade forum.

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 firms that produce either medicine 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.

Castro has not said exactly what Cuba wants to buy, how much it will cost or when the U.S. products would be brought to Cuba. Cuba has said it would pay cash for the goods, whose value has been estimated at $3 million to $10 million.

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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