Mississippi state officials renewed an agreement with Cuba on Thursday aimed at making Gulfport, Miss., the main facility for container cargo to Cuba as U.S. ports seek to secure growing business with the island.

Cuba has agreements with a dozen U.S. ports vying for a bigger share of the trade in agriculture goods to Cuba, amounting to 3.5 million tonnes -- valued at $792 million -- since food sales began in 2001 under an exception to the four-decade-old U.S. embargo.

"We have a desire to be the premier handling facility of cargoes destined for Cuba," Gulfport Executive Director Donald Alle said at a news conference in Havana.

"Competition among ports in the United States is very, very aggressive right now, so when free trade with Cuba becomes a reality, it is going to be equally aggressive," Alle said.

Cuba became the United States' 25th-largest agricultural export market in 2004 as purchases jumped 55 percent, mainly bulk shipments of corn, wheat, rice and soybeans, but also chicken, powdered milk, wine, lumber and newsprint, a report released on Monday said.

Louisiana port facilities have so far accounted for 56 percent of the exports to Cuba, according to the report by the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which monitors trade between the two countries.

The first shipment to Cuba, corn sold by Archer Daniels Midland Co., left from the Port of New Orleans in December 2001.

Ports in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida have gained sizable shares of the Cuba business, followed by Georgia and Virginia, the report said.

The first U.S. container shipped to Cuba in four decades was dispatched from Gulfport where shipments to Cuba -- including poultry, consumer food products and lumber -- are "rapidly approaching 10 percent of our ship traffic," Alle said.

Source: Yahoo Finance