HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. food sales to Cuba fell by 30 percent from January through November compared with the same period in 2009, meaning trade has halved in the last two years as Cuba bought more from allies, a U.S.-based group said on Friday.
Cuba imports about 60 percent of its food, and the United States has been the country’s top provider for years despite political tensions and an almost five-decade-old U.S. trade embargo.
A Cuban official who has played a key role in the food trade between the countries has not been seen in Cuba for nearly a month and Cuban sources say he has defected to the United States.
U.S. food exports to Cuba through November were $344.3 million compared with $486.7 million during the same period in 2009, according to figures released by the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a New York-based group monitoring commerce between the two countries.
The Caribbean nation is required to purchase agricultural goods with cash under a 2000 exemption to the embargo, but Havana is cash-strapped due to the impact of three hurricanes in 2008, the global financial crisis and inefficiencies in the state-dominated economy.
Cuban purchases from the United States of frozen poultry, wheat, soy products, corn, beans and other products peaked at a record $710 million in 2008, then fell 24 percent in 2009.
The report said Cuba was turning more to countries such as Brazil, France, Canada, Russia and China where it could purchase food on credit. The communist-led island was also giving preference to state-run suppliers over private ones, the report said.
Meanwhile, rumors have swirled in Cuba and abroad since late December that the Cuban official — who acted as a go-between with U.S. politicians, trade groups and businesses to foster food sales — is in the United States.
Pedro Alvarez headed up state food importer Alimport when the trade began in 2001. He was replaced in 2008, serving briefly as president of the Chamber of Commerce before being fired early last year under suspicion of corruption.
An employee at Alimport and another at the Chamber of Commerce said Alvarez had not been seen since December and it was “common knowledge” he fled to the United States.
Neither the United States nor Cuba have confirmed reports carried by some Miami media and Cuban-American websites that Alvarez left Cuba.
The employees said they wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject and restrictions on talking to foreign journalists.
Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel