U.S. food sales to Cuba continued decline in 2011

Wed Feb 22, 2012 12:25pm EST

* U.S. food sales to Cuba have fallen by half since 2008

* Economics, not politics, blamed for decline

HAVANA Feb 22 (Reuters) - U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba declined 6 percent last year on top of a 31 percent decline in 2010 as the Communist-led island's financial woes continued and it turned elsewhere to buy food, a trade group said on Wednesday.

Cuba, which imports most of its food, gets chicken, corn, soy, wheat, pork and other products from the United States.

Cuba's food imports topped $1.5 billion in 2011, the government has reported.

U.S. sales to Cuba have dropped by just over 50 percent since hitting a peak of $710 million in 2008, the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council said in a report.

The trade council said the reasons for the decline were largely economic and not political and included Cuba's lack of foreign currency and better financial terms being offered by a host of countries from Canada, Brazil and Vietnam to Russia and France.

Cuban President Raul Castro, soon after taking over for his brother Fidel in 2008, introduced austerity measures, including significant cuts in imports, in an effort to overcome the country's chronic financial problems.

Cuba imports between 60 percent and 70 percent of the food it consumes and Castro has prioritized agricultural reform to increase domestic food production.

The United States has a 50-year-old trade embargo against its longtime ideological enemy that prohibits most business between them, but exemptions are made for agricultural products and medicine for cash.

Despite the embargo, the United States, located just 90 miles (145 km) to the north, has been one of Cuba's top 10 trading partners for a number of years. Cuba also ranks as one of the top 50 U.S. agricultural export markets.

Cuba has purchased more than $3.5 billion in agricultural products from the United States since trade began in 2001, the council's report said. (Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Kevin Gray and Sandra Maler)

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