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What Are Cuba’s Private Entrepreneurs Importing From the United States? Take a Look

Cuba’s private entrepreneurs have been busy importing food and other products from the United States, according to the latest trade data that shows a dramatic 60% jump in exports to Cuba in June compared to the same period last year. U.S. companies exported food products and agricultural commodities amounting to $37 million to Cuba in June, compared to $23 million in June last year, according to data from U.S. government sources, U.S. ports and companies compiled by the U.S. Cuba-Trade and Economic Council. So far, exports this year till June have increased by 11% compared to last year, the data shows. But what has caught the attention of experts tracking the numbers is that, unlike in previous years when Alimport, a Cuban government company, did most of the importing of chicken, soybean or corn, the list of exports now includes unexpected products: organic coffee, cheese, coffee creamers, ice cream, chocolate, cookies, pastries, potato and corn chips, spices, popcorn, peanut butter, maple syrup and many others that are going to the private sector.

“There is absolutely an increase in products that the government Alimport is not buying; these are private sector to private sector” transactions, said John Kavulich, the council’s president. “This isn’t about someone’s opinion. This is data.”

According to the council’s figures, Cuba bought $134 million of poultry between January and June. The Cuban government is still making the most significant purchases, Kavulich said, but the private sector is also making purchases in lower amounts. “You still have the concentration among poultry and agricultural commodities, but you’ve got a higher percentage of other stuff, like crushed and ground ginger, popcorn, $15,981 thus far this year, almost $1.9 million in coffee products, $41,356 in essential oils,” Kavulich said. “We’re seeing a lot of the smaller numbers, $4,952 in olive oil, $7,064 in ice cream.” For the first time since Kavulich has been tracking these statistics, the yearly data running to June shows that U.S. companies also sold $30,241 worth of sugar to Cuba, whose sugar harvest has all but collapsed.

Cuba’s private businesses are also importing beauty and hygiene products like toilet paper, shampoo, soap, deodorant and toothpaste that state enterprises are not producing or importing, as well as construction materials, air conditioner parts, trucks and industrial machinery. The Cuban private sector is not alone in getting products from the U.S. market: The council’s data shows Cuba’s Catholic Church has bought $220,640 worth of communion wafers so far this year. Though Havana usually complains about the U.S. embargo against the island, Cuba frequently buys agricultural products, food and other commodities in the United States — congressional exceptions to the embargo allow exports of food and medicines to the island. Since December 2001, Cuba has imported more than $7 billion in food products and agricultural commodities from the U.S.

The Obama administration also eased some restrictions to authorize exports of “items to meet the needs of the Cuban people” and “support independent economic activity,” the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security says on its website. The bureau issues licenses to U.S. companies wanting to export authorized products to Cuba. and earlier this year, it sought public comments on the effectiveness of its licensing procedures. In 2021, U.S. exports to Cuba totaled $323,5 million, an 83% increase from 2020, according to a report by the Bureau of Industry and Security. Exports authorized under a “support for the Cuban people” exception totaled $20,5 million, almost three times the $7,9 million in 2020. Those numbers, however, might include things that are not part of trade activity, Kavulich said, because sometimes government agencies count exports needed by the U.S. embassy in Havana, U.S. airlines going to Cuba or include donated items in their figures.

Exports of food, medicines and donations are generally authorized and do not require a specific license by the Department of Treasury or the Department of Commerce. But some Cuban private entrepreneurs and lawyers working with them have told the Miami Herald that shipping companies and airlines are demanding specific licenses to transport cargo to the island to ensure they do not run afoul of the embargo. The Biden administration, they said, has been promptly responding to the license applications, sometimes as quickly as two weeks, when the request involves food products. Since the Cuban government allowed small and medium enterprises to import products from abroad in 2021, more private businesses are sourcing their supplies in the United States and buying products to sell to other private enterprises or private grocery stores. Because the Cuban government is essentially broke and shortages are widespread, those imports have become even more critical to cover the gap and fulfill public needs — at least for those who can afford them, since prices are high for most Cubans living on state wages and pensions.

Companies in Miami like Katapulk, owned by Cuban American businessman Hugo Cancio, are also becoming major exporters to Cuba, the council’s data shows. Katapulk is an online market where Cuban Americans can pay for food and other products that get delivered to their relatives on the island. Other top exporters to Cuba are AJC International, Intervision Foods, Boston Agrex, Gerber Agri International, Mountaire Farms, Grove Services, Koch Foods and Vima USA, mostly selling chicken.

But the future of the imports by small and medium businesses in Cuba was put on a halt by the government recently. Cuba’s Central Bank limited the cash these companies can withdraw from their accounts, making it difficult for them to buy dollars in the informal market to pay for imports.

Source: Miami Herald