February 11, 2011 / 10:41 PM / 8 years ago

Group says US food exports to Cuba down 31 percent

* Group says US sales to Cuba nearly halved since 2008

* Cuba has been in a cash crunch for more than two years

HAVANA, Feb 11 (Reuters) - U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba sank by 31 percent in 2010 to $366 million as the communist-led island’s money woes continued and it looked elsewhere to buy food, a trade group said on Friday.

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

U.S. sales to Cuba have dropped by 48 percent since hitting a peak of $710 million in 2008, the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council reported.

The trade council said some of the reasons for the decline included Cuba’s lack of foreign exchange and the greater importance of relationships with other countries — especially financial benefactors Venezuela and China.

Cuba has been in a cash crunch for more than two years, which has caused it to default on many debts and freeze Cuban bank accounts for many foreign companies.

Cuban President Raul Castro invoked an austerity program that included cutting imports by a third and plans to slash more than a million workers from state payrolls.

The United States has a 49-year-old trade embargo against its longtime ideological enemy that prohibits most business between them, but exemptions are made for agricultural products and medicine.

Despite the embargo, the United States, located just 90 miles (145 km) to the north, was Cuba’s fifth-largest trading partner in 2009, when the trade group said American agricultural exports to the island totaled $528 million.

The trade council said Cuba’s inability to generate more political support in the United States for changes to increase trade discouraged it from buying American.

It also said countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Vietnam, Mexico, Canada, Russia and Iran are using credits or barter to maintain or increase trade with Cuba.

Reporting by Jeff Franks; Editing by Will Dunham

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