The Miami Herald / Sept. 25, 2002
By Larry Luxner
HAVANA -- The chief of Cuba's food importing agency Tuesday called for better U.S.-Cuban trade relations on the eve of an unprecedented food exhibition that will attract 750 American executives representing 288 U.S. companies, government agencies and farming cooperatives to Cuba.
The U.S. Food & Agribusiness Exhibition, which runs Thursday through Monday at the Pabexpo convention center outside Havana, is expected to generate $150 million in deals over the next nine months.
That's in addition to the $140 million that Cuba has already spent since a change in U.S. law in late 2000 allowed the Castro government to purchase U.S. food commodities on a cash-only basis.
LIKE ELIAN CASE
Alvarez, chairman of Alimport -- a unit of Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Trade -- compared the challenges facing his agency to the bitter custody battle over Elián González.
''It's looking a lot like the Elián case,'' Alvarez told reporters at a press conference in Havana's swanky Hotel Nacional.
"The Cuban people fought in order to bring the boy back to his father, and the vast majority of the American public supported the return of Elián to Cuba. And one has to be blind today to see that the vast majority of the American public wants normal trading relations between our two countries. In order for these relations to grow and develop, the existing restrictions must be repealed.''
One of the Florida companies, Splash Tropical Drinks of Pompano Beach, will be pushing its fruity cocktail mixes at the expo. The company's piña colada and rum runner mixes do not need refrigeration. The company sees Cuba as a natural expansion for its Caribbean market.
Splash Tropical received U.S. permission in recent weeks to sell to Cuba, President Craig Jacobs said.
''We went through so many agencies -- fingerprints, background checks, you name it,'' he said. Company executives took a jet from Miami to Havana Tuesday for the show.
Jacobs said he was not worried about a backlash in South Florida for exporting to Cuba. ''I don't know if this is breaking any barriers. I'm sure with some people it might be,'' he said. "My stand is whatever the U.S. says we can do and when we can do it, that's what we're going to do.''
Thursday's inauguration will be attended by Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, various members of congress and quite possibly President Fidel Castro.
''The number of companies coming is twice what we anticipated,'' said Alvarez. "This signals a desire by the U.S. farming and business community to restore normal commercial relations with Cuba. We expect to sign a significant number of agreements with major exhibitors every day during the course of the exhibition.''
Alvarez said Cuba currently purchases $1 billion in food products annually, of which U.S. food purchases comprise only 13.3 percent.
But total purchases could reach $1.5 billion by 2005, he said, "and if restrictions on travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens were lifted, this volume would be higher.''
The exhibition is being organized by Peter Nathan, a Connecticut businessman who organized the first trade show in the Soviet Union in 1971 and the first U.S. trade show in China in 1980.
So far, participants representing 33 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have signed up, each paying $3,960 for a booth.
CASH OR CREDIT?
Under current U.S. law, Alimport -- the agency designated to make food purchases on behalf of the Cuban government -- must pay cash. However, the 44-member Cuba Working Group in the House of Representatives is pushing for legislation that would allow the communist island to pay for U.S. food commodities on credit -- a proposal strongly supported by lawmakers from farm states.
Brands which Alimport has specifically requested include Jif peanut butter, Jell-O, Miracle Whip, Kraft salad dressing, Philadelphia cream cheese, Kellogg's, Crisco oil, Pop Tarts, Spam luncheon meat, Pepsi and Coke.
The Cuban food official declined to say how much money Cuba is saving by purchasing food from the United States rather than other countries. He added, however, that European and Canadian companies should not be worried about losing business to the American onslaught.
''We'll never turn our backs on those who have been our friends,'' he said.