WASHINGTON – The State Department denied a U.S. visa to the head of Cuba's food import agency in March because he lobbied against American policy during his last visit, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday.
The visa denial drew criticism from Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who suggested that the action eliminated an opportunity for farmers from his state and others to increase food exports.
"I'm a little miffed about this," Dorgan told Powell during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing. He said the action caused angst among farmers who face collapsing prices for their harvests.
Powell said Pedro Alvarez, who heads the Alimport agency, acted in violation of the terms of his U.S. visa when he spent part of his time during his last visit drumming up opposition to U.S. policies.
In any case, Powell said, the presence of Alvarez is not necessary for food sales to Cuba to take place.
While the U.S. embargo against Cuba remains intact, Congress decided in 2000 to allow food sales to Cuba on a cash basis.
Dorgan said a State Department official told a member of his staff that that the administration does not encourage food sales to Cuba.
Powell said that he had never heard of such a policy, adding that he was pleased that the sales have taken place. He said he believes additional sales should be encouraged so long as American farmers benefit and the sales are consistent with U.S. law.
Dorgan said Cuban purchases have totaled about $70 million since they began last fall.
Alvarez and two other officials from Alimport had been scheduled to come to the United States in March. At the time, the American Farm Bureau Federation said the proposed visit was related to an ongoing sale of poultry to Cuba.
The Cuban officials wanted to inspect U.S. poultry plants and discuss sanitary issues, the farm bureau said, adding that U.S. officials routinely travel abroad for those purposes in connection with American food imports.
The farm bureau said the cancellation of Alvarez's visa will adversely affect U.S. sales of corn, rice, wheat, poultry, soybeans, apples, dried peas, lentils and eggs, valued at $35 million.