Havana — Kansas political and farm officials met Monday with Cuban President Fidel Castro after calling for the United States to normalize relations with the communist nation. A Cuban official said his country will have purchased about $175 million in goods from U.S. producers by the year's end.
Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer, a Republican, told a news conference there should be a "normal political relationship" between the United States and Cuba. John Moore, the Democrat who will replace Sherrer as lieutenant governor Jan. 13, said he also supported "normalization of relations."
No deals were signed during the five-day trip, but Sherrer said the trip "will be very meaningful in terms of dollars of trade for Kansas."
The delegation had a two-hour, 45-minute meeting and lunch with the Cuban leader immediately before leaving for home.
"It was talking about farming and crops and sorghum and soybeans," said trip organizer Kirby Jones. Castro "didn't get into any specifics" about a trade deal, Jones said.
"Castro said he'd met I don't know how many hundreds or thousands of American farmers and said he'd learned a lot about American agriculture."
During a news conference earlier, Sherrer said he thought "the majority of the Congress and a majority of the American people believe that relaxing the embargo is the proper direction."
President Bush has opposed such measures, however.
Quoting a saying comparing lawmaking to sausage-making, Sherrer said, "The process will not be attractive, but I believe it is inevitable."
U.S. farmers and agribusiness companies have increasingly attacked the four-decade-old trade embargo against Cuba that is most strongly supported by Cuban exile organizations based in Florida.
Sherrer said that while Cuba might be a relatively small market, "I can tell you that with what the Kansas farmer has gone through with low prices and drought, the prospect of 20 or 30 million dollars in sales is very attractive."
Pedro Alvarez, head of the Cuban food import concern Alimport, said Cuban food imports would reach about $950 million this year and were expected to rise to about $1.4 billion by 2005 or 2006.
He said Cuba had signed agreements to buy about $250 million in food from the United States and will have taken delivery of about $175 million by the end of the year.
The United States began imposing limits on trade with Cuba in the early 1960s, shortly after the revolution led by Castro overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista. But a law passed in 2000 created an exemption in the embargo, allowing direct sales of food.
The first direct shipment of food to the island in almost 40 years took place in December 2001.
Sherrer said the delegation had invited Alvarez to visit Kansas and said "we will work very hard to see that he is given a visa to do so."
U.S. federal officials are often slow to grant visas to Cuban officials seeking to visit the United States. Alvarez said he had been allowed to visit twice but also had been turned down twice.
"To deny him a visa is to deny Kansas farmers an opportunity to sell their products and that's simply wrong," Sherrer said.
Others making the trip included organizations of Kansas wheat, corn, pork and other producers, as well as state trade and farm officials.