(Dec. 6) The prospects for U.S. growers shipping produce to Cuba have never been great. New figures from the Cuban government suggest they may not get better anytime soon.

Cuba’s trade imbalance has shown improvement in 2007 for the first time in years, the country’s foreign trade minister, Raul de la Nuez, told the Reuters news service in November.

Cuban exports were up 44% through September, according to the report. Imports, by contrast, rose just 3%.

For the year, de la Nuez projects exports will increase by $1 billion and imports by less than $300 million.

Cuba exported $2.8 billion worth of goods in 2006 and imported $9.4 billion’s worth, according to government figures.

For U.S. produce officials and exporters, it was more of the same gloomy news. Frank Muir, chief executive officer of the Eagle-based Idaho Potato Commission, said hopes raised by a commission visit to Cuba last spring had not been fulfilled.

Idaho and Cuban officials had discussed shipping frozen and seed potatoes to the island.

“We’re a little disappointed,” he said. “On the frozen side, it doesn’t look like they’re willing to pay the price that would warrant shipping U.S. product down there.”

On the seed side, Cuban officials have yet to fill out the appropriate visa forms.

“We’re at the same point we were at a few months ago, and we haven’t a good explanation why,” he said.

The opportunities for U.S. growers in Cuba are huge, said Julie Escobar, export manager for Miami-based The Produce Connection.

“They have the need for the majority of the fruits and vegetables grown here,” she said.

The U.S. exported 1,612 metric tons of fresh produce to Cuba in 2006, valued at $1.1 million. Apples were by far the largest fresh produce export, representing 1,486 metric tons worth $887,000.