Cuba says U.S. climbs to 5th leading trade partner

HAVANA (Reuters) - The United States ranked among communist Cuba’s top five trading partners for the first time in 2007 despite the decades-old U.S. trade embargo, as U.S. agriculture sales increased by $100 million.

Trade data for 2007 posted on the Web site of Cuba’s National Statistics Office ( placed the United States fifth at $582 million, compared with $484 million in 2006, including shipping costs.

The United States, which began selling food to Cuba in 2002 under an amendment to the embargo, placed seventh in 2006 and 2005.

Revolutionary ally Venezuela and communist China were Cuba’s top trading partners at $2.698 billion and $2.457 billion respectively, with Canada placing third and Spain fourth, each at more than $1 billion.

Before the 1959 Cuban revolution that swept Fidel Castro into power, the United States was Cuba’s top trading partner by far. In 1962, the United States imposed a trade embargo still in place today.

Cuba’s total trade in 2007 was $13.8 billion, with exports of $3.7 billion and imports of $10 billion.

The U.S. food trade is expected to grow this year due to high prices for Cuban imports such as corn, wheat, soy and chicken.

“The economic logic of U.S.-Cuba trade is so powerful that it trumps political hostilities,” said Dan Erikson, a Caribbean expert at the Inter-American Dialogue policy group in Washington.

“If the embargo were lifted then a flood of trade and investment would pour into Cuba, transforming both the economies of Cuba and South Florida in the process,” Erikson said.

The Cuban government and embargo foes in the U.S. Congress argue that lifting the trade embargo entirely would result in the United States grabbing a much larger share of Cuba’s trade and increasing its influence in Havana.

But the Bush administration and Cuban American representatives in Congress argue trade would prop up the Castro government and that profit should not come before freedom.

(For the statistical office's tables on trade, please go to: here; for more official data on Cuba's economic performance in 2007, please go to: here)

Editing by Jeff Franks, Tom Brown and bill Trott