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Cuba signed up to import more U.S. food products this week but said payment procedures introduced by the Bush administration in 2005 were hindering trade and forcing it to make deals with other countries.

Cuba has been importing food like rice and chicken from the United States since 2000, when cash-only food sales were permitted as a exception to the U.S. trade embargo, turning Cuba's ideological foe into its top foreign supplier.

Cuba's food import agency, Alimport, this week signed new contracts worth $60 million with a delegation from the U.S. state of Nebraska, to import mainly wheat, pork and soy beans.

Yet Alimport head Pedro Alvarez said procedural rules imposed in 2005 made the United States an unreliable supplier and had driven Cuba to look to other countries.

"We've been obliged to divert several hundreds of millions of dollars," Alvarez told reporters after the new contracts were signed late on Tuesday.

He said rules, including a stipulation that Cuba must pay before cargo ships leave U.S. ports rather than before unloading in Havana, were an obstacle to increasing food imports.

"The North American companies, which are efficient, are in many cases unreliable for us, because you don't know when a shipment is going to be held up," he said.

In six years, Cuba has become the 34th largest market for U.S. agricultural exports out of 227 countries, importing $340 million of U.S. food products in 2006.

U.S. food producers want to further expand this market, situated just 90 miles from Florida, but are limited by the payment rules as well as the wider trade embargo.

Alvarez said that if the U.S. embargo were lifted " seen as extremely unlikely under George W. Bush's presidency " bilateral trade in goods and service could total as much as $21 billion in just five years.

"Despite the challenges between our countries, we hope to increase the number of Nebraskan products sold here," said Gov. Dave Heineman, heading the delegation in Havana and on his third visit to the communist-run island, despite being from Bush's Republican party.

In total, Cuba will import $1.6 billion to $1.7 billion worth of food this year from various countries, Alvarez said.

Cuba " which has to pay for its U.S. imports in a third currency, making the deals more expensive, and cover the return journeys of empty ships " can import food more simply from countries like Brazil and Argentina. In other goods, its main trading partners are Venezuela, China and Vietnam.

In April, a food trade delegation is expected in Cuba from Idaho state led by Gov. Butch Otter, also a Republican.

Source: Reuters

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