(Aug. 15) WESTPORT, Conn. — The green light given a U.S. business to stage a food and agribusiness exhibition in Havanna, Cuba, may reflect a push to expand trade with the island country.

Peter Nathan, president of PWN Exhibition International LLC, Westport, said his company is promoting a U.S. Food & Agribusiness Exhibition. The event is scheduled to run from Sept. 26-30. The exhibition will take place in the Palacio de Convenciones de la Habana, known as Pabexpo, and will be open to all Cuban citizens at no charge.

Empresa Cubana Importadora Aliementos (Alimport) will use the U.S. Food & Agribusiness Exhibition to identify new sales of U.S. products to Cuba. Alimport is the exclusive importer for food products and agricultural products purchased directly from the U.S.

Representatives of government-operated companies and nongovernment-operated companies that have offices in Cuba also will attend the U.S. Food & Agribusiness Exhibition.

While the Cuban government has consistently claimed to have no interest in trading with U.S. shippers, inadequate local markets, destructive hurricanes and increasing tourism demands are forcing Alimport to look north for fresh produce.

The opportunity to resume trade with a once major trading partner is fostering a movement in Congress to remove trade restrictions for food exports entirely.

The House of Representative recently passed on a voice vote an amendment by Jerry Moran, R-Kan., to ban the sanctions against the export of food and medicine to Cuba. While the House narrowly rejected an amendment by Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., to eliminate the trade sanctions entirely, the measure faces an almost certain veto by President Bush.And yet the momentum to improve trade with Cuba continues to grow. The Associated Press reported Aug. 14. that U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, told the South Central Kansas Trade Forum that free trade is the best way to keep the U.S. economy growing.

Armey added that if the embargo were to last another year, it will be the last year. While Armey has traditionally supported the trade restrictions, he also is reported to have said that if congressional district had a stake in trade with Cuba he might have voted for removing the restrictions.

Gov. John Hoeven recently led a North Dakota delegation on a trade mission to Cuba in July and returned with almost $2.1 million worth of orders for his state’s farm products.

Early in August, Tampa, Fla., Mayor Dick Greco and group of Florida business leaders traveled to the island nation scouting for commercial opportunities. The Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation sponsored the trip. Alliance president Albert Fox Jr. is among a growing number of business leaders who are becoming critical of the U.S. embargo.

“The U.S. policy is outdated,” he said. “We’ve established diplomatic relations with Vietnam — why not Cuba?”

The direct sale of food and pharmaceutical products to Cuba was approved by the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000. The U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council Inc., New York, projects sales to Cuba will exceed $165 million by the end of 2002.

According to John Kavulich, president of the council, Alimport has reported purchases (on a cash basis, excluding transportation costs) of $106 million in agricultural and food products from U.S. companies in 28 states since December.

The council publishes a weekly update that reports the sales and shipping activity between the U.S. and Cuba. In its Aug. 5 report, the council claims Cuba will rank 45th out of 180 countries for agricultural purchases from the U.S. in 2002, compared to 138th in 2001, and 180th in 2000. The council projects Cuba will rank 33rd in 2003. Cuba’s population is about 11 million.

In March, a research team from Cuba spent several days at the University of Florida’s Center for Research on the International Economy in Gainesville.

The Cuban team updated the center’s faculty on Cuban citrus production and the phytosanitary regulations governing Cuban imports of fruit and vegetable products.

John Van Sickle, a professor of food and resource economics at the university, said his research showed Cubans would have to significantly improve their infrastructure and markets in order to bring more locally grown produce to their consumers.

“They consume quite a bit of fresh produce as a normal part of their culture,” Van Sickle said, “but adding to that is the fact that their economy is now very tourist driven.”

Van Sickle said the dining habits of European tourists are forcing the Cubans to buy fresh produce on the import market.

“Tourism is now their No. 1 industry and their primary source of hard currency. They have the capacity to increase production, but right now they’re struggling with their resource base. Their infrastructure has been less well-kept ever since the Russians left.”