Havana--Communist Cuba expects to sign contracts for much as $150 million in American agricultural goods next week at the largest gathering of U.S. farm producers here since Fidel Castro fell ill last summer.
Pedro Alvarez, chairman of the island's food import company Alimport, said that talks beginning Monday should produce enough deals to ensure Cuba buys as much U.S. goods in 2007 as it did last year. About 100 American farm groups and companies from 22 U.S. states are participating.
In 2006, Cuba spent $570 million for U.S. food and agricultural products, including shipping and banking costs, Alvarez said.
So far this year, his government has spent $225 million to purchase and import American goods.
"We are hoping that by the end of the coming week we will have between $100 million to $150 million in new contracts," said Alvarez, adding he expects as many as 250 Americans at the talks that will wind up with contract signings on May 30.
Washington maintains a 45-year-old trade embargo on the island, but U.S. food and agricultural products can be sold directly to Cuba under a law passed by the U.S. Congress in 2000.
Since Havana first took advantage of the law in 2001, it has spent more than $2.2 billion on American farm products, including hefty transportation and financing costs.
"We would buy double that if not for the restrictions," said Alvarez, referring to American regulations that include time-consuming paperwork and cash-only financing.
Castro often mingled with American farm producers during past gatherings aimed at increasing U.S. sales to the island.
But the 80-year-old Castro has not been seen in public since July 31, when he announced he had undergone emergency intestinal surgery and provisionally ceded his duties to his younger brother Raul, the defense minister.
Since then, he has been seen only in official photographs and videotapes.
As a preview to next week's gathering, North Dakota Agricultural Commissioner Roger Johnson is leading a trade mission to the island this week to discuss the possibility of selling potatoes to the island.
An Alabama trade mission arrives today. Alimport's Alvarez said Cuba expects other large delegations from Georgia, Florida and Mississippi, and smaller groups from California, New York, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and Washington state.