* U.S. food sales to Cuba have fallen by half since 2008
* Economics, not politics, blamed for decline
HAVANA Feb 22 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
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