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U.S. rice group reports new Cuban sales near

A delegation of U.S. rice-state members of Congress and rice industry representatives completed its trip to Cuba with no new sales of U.S. rice. But industry leaders were told new purchases of U.S. rice by Cuba were likely later this year.

The congressmen, who included Reps. Marion Berry, D-Ark., and Rodney Alexander, R-La., and rice industry leaders were in Havana for the 2007 U.S.-Cuba Trade Round, hosted by ALIMPORT, the agency that oversees food imports for the Cuban government.

“This is only the beginning of increased trade with Cuba,” said Berry, who spoke at a ceremony marking the arrival of a shipment of U.S. milled rice in Cuba. “We are committed to increase rice sales to Cuba. (He and Alexander were among a group of five lawmakers attending the trade round.)

Meanwhile, USA Rice Federation President and CEO Betsy Ward, attending a dinner meeting hosted by the Cuban Ambassador Dagoberto Rodriquez at his residence outside of Washington, said Rodriquez indicated future rice sales this year were likely.

Although the U.S. group was disappointed no new rice sales were announced, the large representation for the U.S. rice industry and the attendance of two congressmen from rice-producing states generated much goodwill, according to USA Rice Federation staff members.

Senior Advisor for Cuba Marvin Lehrer reported the USA Rice delegation of eight members was probably the largest delegation of the approximately 100 companies attending the U.S.-Cuba Trade Round.

While Cuba currently has ample supplies of rice, USA Rice believes additional purchases of rice from the United States will be possible in the near future. ALIMPORT was pleased with the rice industry and congressional attendance, and expressed the need for continued dialogue and a constant flow of information, said Lehrer.

Ward reaffirmed the importance of the Cuban market to U.S. rice farmers and pledged to continue to work with Congress to ease restrictions on trade with Cuba that have cost major sales to what could be the second largest foreign market for U.S. rice.

In 2006, the U.S. rice industry exported more than 157,000 metric tons of rice to Cuba, the largest foreign market for U.S. rice prior to the trade embargo imposed after Cuban President Fidel Castro came to power.

Agricultural trade to Cuba did not resume until 2002 after passage of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, which allowed U.S. companies to ship food and drugs to the country. After TSREEA went into effect, the rice trade peaked in 2004 at nearly 177,000 metric tons.

“Treasury Department restrictions through the Office of Foreign Assets Control, have limited trade to what could easily be the second largest market for U.S. rice,” said Ward. “The embargo has cost the United States more than $3 billion in lost contracts and nearly 5,000 additional jobs over its lifetime.”

Ernesto Plasencia Escalante, first secretary with the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, recently told USA Rice that Cuba would import 850,000 MT of rice this year.

Senior Cuban trade officials have estimated that, without the OFAC restrictions requiring cash payments prior to shipment and prohibiting the extension of credit terms, Cuba would likely import between 400,000 and 600,000 metric tons of rice from the United States.

In mid-April, Cuba imported 33,800 metric tons of U.S. long-grain, milled rice, according to news reports.

Farm-state congressmen have introduced several bills aimed at redressing many of the OFAC restrictions, including bills to allow travel to Cuba and to facilitate the sale of agricultural products to Cuba as authorized through TSREEA.

Rep. Berry is among the cosponsors for bills to authorize travel and trade with Cuba as well as a bill to lift trade sanctions.

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