Americans to Attend Trade Talks in Cuba

Two years ago in December, fewer than 30 U.S. business representatives came to Havana to sign agreements with Cuban officials to export food to the Caribbean island. This week, Cuba expects more than 340 people — primarily producers of American farm goods — to attend the latest round of talks, in which communist officials hope to sign deals worth about $100 million.

"This shows a great interest on the part of American businesses," Pedro Alvarez (search), chairman of the Cuban food import company Alimport (search), said Monday.

With that growing interest has come increased pressure on the U.S. government by the American companies and even members of Congress to lift trade and travel restrictions against Cuba, Alvarez said.

"There is a marked and growing interest in continuing to improve relations with Cuba," he said.

Four decades of trade sanctions against Cuba have been tightened under the Bush administration.

Yet Alvarez was optimistic that President Bush in his second term will start heeding requests from U.S. business interests and lawmakers — particularly those from farm states — to ease restrictions.

"I have absolute confidence that intelligence will prevail," Alvarez said. "I think the time is right."

Under an exception to the sanctions, American agricultural goods can be sold to the island on a cash-only basis. Since Cuba began taking advantage of the exception in 2001, it has contracted to buy more than $900 million in American farm goods, including shipping and hefty bank fees to send payments through third nations.

Cuban officials say that figure will reach $1 billion by the end of the year.

More than 165 U.S. companies will be represented in this week's talks, which run from Wednesday to Friday. Sen. Max Baucus (search) of Montana, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, is expected to attend, as well as several state lawmakers and agricultural commissioners.

More than half of the participants come from the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and Maine.