Local vegetables are on display for sale at a food shop in Havana, Cuba, Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. Entrepreneurs from the United States’ agricultural sector have arrived in Cuba to promote business between the two countries. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
Representatives from the United States' agricultural sector arrived in Cuba on Thursday for a conference aimed at promoting sales, one of the few U.S. business areas allowed to deal with the island under a half-century-old trade embargo that Cuban leaders blame for most of its economic troubles.
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The U.S.-Cuba Agriculture Coalition will explore potential opportunities for American agriculture producers seeking a market on the island. Cuba imports most of its food products from abroad, a multibillion-dollar market that has flourished despite U.S. sanctions.
Relations between both countries normalized somewhat after former U.S. President Barack Obama loosened the trade embargo while in office. But President Donald Trump has intensified sanctions, making it harder for Americans to travel to Cuba and conduct business.
In 2017, the United States sold $260 million of food to the Cuba, but the figure was one of the lowest in this decade and paled in comparison to the $450 million of U.S. food sold in 2012.
The island still cannot sell its own products in the U.S. and is not given credit to help pay for imports as a result of the embargo.
Cuba spends about $2 billion a year to import food for its 11 million citizens, who are given almost free rations each month of products such as chicken, rice and milk.
Phil Peters, a trip organizer, said U.S. agribusiness is interested in exporting more products to Cuba and improving regulatory conditions, and in "building a broader and more normal relationship in which there is investment and shared business."
About 30 participants were meeting with officials at the conference and visiting farms and cooperatives in the Caribbean nation. The group is scheduled to stay until Saturday.
"Our country finds itself fully updating its economic model," Cuban deputy agriculture minister Jose Miguel Rodriguez de Armas said at the opening of the conference. "The concerns of the agriculture sector are very important for the development of our country."