U.S. Commercial Food Shipment Due to Arrive in Cuba

Communist Cuba waited Sunday for the first U.S. commercial food shipment in nearly 40 years, raising hopes for some people in both countries that the symbolic act would serve as a foot in the door to future trade.

Cuban officials said the M.V. Ikan Mazatlan was expected to arrive at the Port of Havana on Sunday morning. The cargo ship carried 26,400 tons of corn, the first direct commercial export of agricultural products from the United States to Cuba since 1963.

Representatives of American agribusiness and some U.S. officials are hope the shipment will lead to increased trade with Cuba, eventually creating a new market for U.S. food and other exports.

"This is a bridge we need to build," Illinois Gov. George Ryan, whose state produced some of the corn, said Friday after the shipment was loaded in the United States. The shipment also includes corn from Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin.

But Cuban exiles who favor keeping the nearly 40-year-old embargo on trade with Cuba in place say the direct sale of American food could erode it. They say sanctions are necessary to punish Cuban leader Fidel Castro's communist government.

When the ship sailed from New Orleans on Friday, George J. Fowler III, general counsel for the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation, said the direct sale of American food would "put money in Castro's pocket."

Castro last week called the purchase "a friendly response to a friendly gesture," apparently referring to the U.S. offer of humanitarian aid after a hurricane hit Cuba last month. He said more purchases would be possible if Washington allowed Cuba to sell its products in the United States.

Nearly all trade between the two nations is banned under the U.S. embargo. Congress passed a law last year that permitted the sale of American food to Cuba for humanitarian purposes but barred government and private U.S. financing of such sales.

For months, Cuba said it would not buy any food under the law, calling the financing restrictions onerous and urging United States to ease or end the embargo.

After Hurricane Michelle hit Cuba on Nov. 4, destroying crops and thousands of homes, Washington made the unusual gesture of offering to send humanitarian aid to the island.

Havana politely declined but said it would use the opportunity to make a one-time cash purchase of food from American companies under the law, in order to replenish food reserves used up after the hurricane.

U.S. agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland Co. is among a number of American companies that are selling food to Cuba as part of what Havana says will be a one-time deal.

ADM has said it has contracted to deliver about 105,000 tons of food items, including corn, soybean meal, wheat and rice, through February. It said the contracts with the Cuban government have a combined market value of about $14 million.

In a related purchase from American poultry producers, a shipment of frozen chickens to Cuba is expected to depart later this month.