U.S. farm product sales to Cuba, which began only in 2002, have now topped $1 billion, the head of Cuba's food import agency said on Thursday.

That trade appears to be growing despite a marked deterioration in always tense bilateral relations.
"We have paid $1.043 billion to date," Alimport Chairman Pedro Alvarez said after signing a $22 million contract for 10,000 tonnes of milk with Dairy America of Arizona. Alimport includes shipping and other costs in its figures.

Alvarez said most of the 163,000 tonnes (tons) of agricultural products purchased from the United States under a 2000 U.S. measure that allowed cash-only sales were shipped by U.S. companies.

Alimport reported Cuba had become the 22nd largest U.S. agricultural market, with sales of $474 million last year. In January, U.S. companies did $45 million in new business with Cuba, Alvarez said.

U.S. President George W. Bush has in recent years tightened the 45-year-old trade embargo against the communist-run Caribbean island, expelled 19 Cuban diplomats and suspended biannual immigration talks, even as the food trade has grown.

Both Alvarez and Dairy America President Keith Murfield said they hoped trade would continue in a positive direction because it was in the interest of both countries, but Alvarez warned new sanctions would result in reduced Cuban purchases.

"If restrictions are tightened, trade would be dramatically reduced," Alvarez said.

Around 90 percent of Cuban purchases have been for grains, cereal and poultry from a dozen U.S. companies such as Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland Co., Minnesota-based Cargill and Iowa-based FC Stone, though more than 120 smaller companies have participated.

Cuba imported $1.3 billion of food products last year, including $120 million for 55,000 to 60,000 tonnes of powdered milk, Alvarez said, adding that just 17,500 tonnes of it came from the United States.

Source: Yahoo News