US agriculture chief in Cuba as ties warm

Update: November, 12/2015 - 12:16

HAVANA — The United States' agriculture secretary was in Cuba on Wednesday to speed up efforts at normalising trade ties after decades of enmity between the two countries.

The neighbors agreed to right relations in December after more than 50 years of highly tense ties including the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.

Tom Vilsack is the third member of President Barack Obama's cabinet to visit after Secretary of State John Kerry and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

Vilsack and Council of Ministers Vice President Ricardo Cabrisas discussed trade issues, the US farm sector and "obstacles to trade," a statement read out on Cuban television said.

While full diplomatic ties have been restored, the US economic sanctions in its trade embargo largely remain in place because the Republican-run Congress has to vote to end it.

Bilateral trade was US$390 million in 2014, despite the sanctions Cuba says is "strangling" it.

Under embargo loopholes, Cuba since 2001 has been allowed to buy US food, but only in cash. It cannot sell goods to the United States.

US farm states are eager to boost their exports to the island, but the Americas' only Communist state has very little access to credit, other than from allies China or Venezuela.

In Cuba's Soviet-style top-down system, state focus on farming long concentrated largely on exports instead of growing enough food to feed Cuba's 11 million people. — AFP