U.S. food lands in Cuba for first time in 40 years
HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- For the first time in nearly 40 years, ships carrying tons of food from the United States arrived in Havana's harbor Sunday -- a move some American farmers and exporters hope will help open Cuban markets.
The shipments are part of a one-time $30 million purchase of U.S. food by the Cuban government in the wake of a devastating hurricane that hit the island early last month.
A ship called the Express brought in 500 tons of frozen chicken legs into Cuba's capital, Havana. Another ship, the Ikan Mazatlan, transported 24,000 metric tons of corn grown in nine Midwestern states.
"It's our hope that these initial shipments and sales to Cuba will serve the purpose of proving the point that it's a logical thing for Cuba and the United States to trade with one another," said Larry Cunningham, senior vice president of the Archer Daniels Midland Co., a U.S.-based agribusiness firm involved in the Cuban shipments.
But political obstacles may prevent such developments, as they have in the past. The relationship between the United States and Cuba has been strained since communist leader Fidel Castro took control of the Mediterranean island on January 1, 1959.
Although the United States has maintained an economic embargo on Cuba for decades, U.S. law does allow shipments of food and medicine to the communist-controlled island. But the Cuban government has long refused to buy American food because of the restrictions, including a ban on direct U.S. financing of food sales.
Under the embargo, U.S. ships could only dock in Cuba if they carried a special license from the U.S. Treasury Department. Other nations' ships that have dropped anchor in Cuban ports must also obtain a license from the Treasury in order to dock in a U.S. port after leaving Cuba -- or else wait six months.
Sunday's shipment followed a string of diplomatic gestures, including a U.S. offer of humanitarian aid days after Hurricane Michelle struck Cuba in early November.
A category 4 storm with winds of 135 mph, Michelle killed five people, caused major damage in eight provinces and the Isle of Youth, and devastated the country's telecommunications system. The storm also caused extensive damage to the country's electrical infrastructure and wiped out tens of thousands of homes.
Cuban officials have insisted that the food purchase is a one-time event needed to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Michelle.
But Pedro Alvarez, president of Alimport, a state-run import firm in Cuba, said that the shipment demonstrates the potential value of the Cuban market to U.S. producers -- and, he said, the folly of the embargo.
"American companies are being blocked by their own laws, which don't allow them to participate in the Cuban market," he said.
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