In spite of continued Congressional support of a 50-year old policy of trade restrictions against Cuba, U.S. rice industry representatives are gathering in Havana this week for the annual International Trade Fair of Havana (FIHAV) in hopes of developing new trade strategies and gathering support for overturning the U.S. embargo, which would re-open the Cuba market to U.S. rice producers.

Dwight Roberts, CEO of the Texas Rice Council, says a large contingent of agricultural representatives from Texas is among those attending the week-long Cuban fair, including members of Alliance Texas-Cuba for Trade. The fair gets underway Monday, Oct. 31, and runs through Saturday, Nov. 5, at the EXPOCUBA exhibition hall in Cuba’s capital city.

“After sales of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba were authorized in 2000, U.S. rice sales to the island rose to $64 million annually in 2004. Since that time, U.S. rice sales to Cuba have fallen to zero. For several years in a row, there have been no sales of U.S. rice to Cuba due to the current restriction forcing the use of third country banks to process payments,” Roberts said. “Easing the embargo and opening the market again would be a major benefit for Texas producers.”

Cynthia Thomas of Alliance Texas-Cuba for Trade agrees. She says her research on the Cuba embargo reveals that none of the stated outcomes or goals of the embargo have come to pass and says engagement with Cuba is a much more effective tool than an economic embargo.

“Lifting the embargo would open the door for Texas farmers to a potential $57 million in food and agricultural exports that could result in 1,500 new jobs,” she says.

Thomas, along with Ray Stoesser, Chairman of the US Rice Producers Association (USRPA) board of directors, are in Cuba this week along with a “very large contingent” of industry representatives from Texas in hopes of identifying new markets not only in Cuba but also from among hundreds of trade representatives of the international community.

The annual International Trade Fair of Havana is one of Cuba’s strategies to expand its market of productions and services and to mitigate the effects of the economic blockade imposed by the United States on the Caribbean nation.

New markets possible

Speaking to reporters in Havana, the deputy minister of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment, Orlando Hernandez Guillen, said that FIHAV is an excellent opportunity to find new markets and clients for the development of the Cuban economy. Hernandez Guillen said business representatives, commercial partners, presidents and executives of Chambers of Commerce, and official delegations from more than 55 countries were present in the meeting last year and “expectations are higher this year.”

Stoesser said last week that USRPA attended a conference hosted by the Cuban Interests Section on the effects of the U.S. Embargo for Cuba. Included in that conference were various officials from the Ministry of Foreign Relations of Cuba, Foreign Trade and Investments, Tourism, Public Health, Alimport and Havanatur.  Jorge Bolaños, Chief of Mission at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington D.C., introduced the U.S. panel, which included Stoesser and U.S. representatives from the travel, trade, agricultural, and educational sectors.

USRPA has consistently highlighted the need to lift U.S. restrictions on trade with Cuba.

Betsy Ward of the USA Rice Federation says Cuba is a vital trade partner.

“U.S. rice sales mean high quality, low cost rice for Cubans, and lifting sanctions from our farmers and exporters will create jobs in the United States. In fact, the U.S. International Trade Commission estimates that lifting these unnecessary payment restrictions through third-party nations could increase U.S. rice exports to the island by $43 million per year,” she says.

The 39th Havana International Trade Fair, FIHAV 2011, is expected to entertain 3,000 exhibitors from 1,500 companies from 60-plus countries around the world.
Roberts says despite the island´s economic and financial problems, this year’s fair is considered the most important one of the last 10 years, due to the large number of exhibitors and the 14,000-square-meter exhibition area, 1,500 square meters more than the 2010 edition.
According to Abraham Maciquez, president of the organizing committee, the most represented countries this year are Spain, which almost doubled its participation compared with FIHAV 2010, and China, Italy and Panama.