U.S. Stars at Annual Cuban Trade Fair

HAVANA, Cuba -- Communist Cuba on Sunday trumpeted the presence of U.S. companies at Havana's annual international trade fair, even as debate raged in Washington over travel and trade with the embargoed Caribbean island.

"The presence of U.S. companies is evidence of the growing movement in that country for trade and normal relations," Foreign Trade Minister Raul de la Nuez said, as he opened Cuba's most important commercial event.

Fair organizers said 153 U.S. businessmen, representing more than 50 companies from 19 states, were attending. The United States amended the more than four-decades-old embargo on Cuba in 2000 to allow agricultural sales for cash. Cuba to date has purchased and contracted for about $500 million in food products, including shipping costs, Pedro Alvarez, chairman of state food importer Alimport, said.

"We plan to sign $100 million in contracts at the fair, around half with the Americans," Alvarez said.

The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate last month passed legislation that would lift restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba by denying the government funds to enforce the ban. The measure must still pass a conference committee before reaching U.S. President George W. Bush's desk.

Bush, who tightened travel regulations to Cuba and cracked down on unauthorized trips there this year, said he would veto the measure.

"The U.S. companies here demonstrate the contradictory nature, irrationality and absurdity of U.S. policy. ... [I]t is very important they are here," Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage, in charge of economic development, told the reporters.

At the fairground's most visible pavilion after the central building reserved for Cuban companies, the U.S. food companies had set up 26 stands.

"It is good business, a good market for us," said Joel Coleman, export sales director for Carolina Turkeys from North Carolina, who wants to see U.S. sanctions repealed.