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N.D. growers land $20M Cuban deal

North Dakota growers have struck an agreement to sell $20 million of farm commodities to Cuba in a record deal that nearly equals the state's agricultural exports to that nation over the last three years.

North Dakota growers have struck an agreement to sell $20 million of farm commodities to Cuba in a record deal that nearly equals the state's agricultural exports to that nation over the last three years.

The agreement was announced Saturday by officials representing North Dakota and Cuba at an international food trade expo in Havana, who also lamented the "onerous" restrictions on U.S. food exports to the island nation.

"It's been a productive time down here," Roger Johnson, North Dakota's agriculture commissioner, told reporters in a news conference with a telephone link. "We're pretty delighted."

The $20 million trade deal, with sales contemplated over the next 18 months, was spelled out in a memorandum of understanding with the Cuban food import agency, Alimport. Commodity sales include peas, pinto beans, lentils and hard red spring wheat.

"This is a significant increase in North Dakota's sales to Cuba, which have totaled about $21.2 million since 2002," said Johnson, who headed a delegation of North Dakota farmers and agribusiness representatives.

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Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., also heralded the deal, made possible by legislation he co-wrote, and pledged to keep working to lift restrictions many agree put U.S. farmers at a competitive disadvantage with rivals in Canada and Europe.

"I hope this is just another step in the continuing opportunities to sell agricultural products to the Cuban marketplace," Dorgan said in telephone link with Johnson and the Cuban officials in Havana.

Dorgan had planned to travel to Cuba for the announcement, but had to stay in Washington because of budget negotiations. Last week he called Pedro Alvarez, the Cuban official who heads Alimport, to talk about possible sales.

Cuba expects to buy $450 million to $500 million in food and farm commodities from the United States this year, in spite of cumbersome restrictions imposed by the U.S. government, Alvarez said. The U.S. imposed a trade embargo on Cuba after Fidel Castro took power in 1959, imposing a communist dictatorship.

Total food exports from the United States would almost double, to $750 million or $800 million, without the restrictions, which add millions of dollars in costs through cumbersome paperwork and delays, Alvarez said.

"So if we're really intent to trade, then let's remove these restrictions," he said. He also called on the U.S. government to lift its ban on tourist travel to Cuba, a popular Caribbean resort destination for Canadians and Europeans.

If American tourists were permitted to visit Cuba, the infusion of dollars to the island's economy would significantly boost its appetite for more food supplied by farmers in North Dakota and elsewhere in the United States, Alvarez said.

"Why not let American tourists come down to Cuba and mingle with the people?" he asked.

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Restrictions, which require all sales to be paid in cash, with transactions handled by intermediary banks in Europe, add costs and delays, sometimes reducing the quality of products while they wait in ships before approval comes from the U.S. government to unload.

Johnson agreed that the restrictions are worsening, noting conditions imposed by the Bush administration within the past year. Now all sales to Cuba must be paid in cash before the products are shipped. Before, cash had to be received before they were unloaded. Some intermediary banks are getting fed up by the extra costs and red tape, Johnson said.

"A number of the international banks have said they're simply not interested," Johnson said.

Dorgan, who noted there is broad, bipartisan support in Congress for easing the restrictions, said legislation he co-authored with Sen. LarryCraig, R-Idaho, would lift the administration's most recent restrictions. The measure has cleared the Senate, Dorgan said.

The contract signed Saturday was for 20,000 metric tons of peas, Johnson said. "That's as large a sale as we've ever had."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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