PAUL Johnson, president of U.S. Chicago Foods International, reports that sales to Cuba are becoming increasingly difficult. Although Johnson is a regular exhibitor at the Havana International Trade Fair, since beginning sales of his products in Cuba four years ago, he is dissatisfied with the restrictions placed on U.S. trade with the country and inconvenient payment procedures required of Cuban entities.
The limited option of buying food products from the U.S. continues to be governed by strict regulations, a complex system of licenses which affects travel by executives to the island, the signing of contracts, transportation and payments related to such transactions.
The Office of Foreign Assets Control, within the U.S. Treasury Department, known as OFAC, is charged with enforcing these regulations and reserves the right to cancel licenses without prior notification or explicit justification.
Further impacting U.S. sales to Cuba are other obstacles including the prohibition of direct transactions between U.S. and Cuban banks. Cuba is not allowed to pay for imports in U.S. dollars and ships which have docked in Cuba to unload cargo are not permitted to enter U.S. ports for six months.
Since 2008, when the Cuban food importing enterprise Alimport bought approximately 800 million dollars worth of U.S. products, Cuban purchases in that country have declined by 50%, given the complications. Cuba was forced to seek other more competitive international sources.
"The most important issue here is the cash; Cuba can make purchases on credit with other countries but not with the United States. There is a small group in my country which controls foreign policy and this cannot continue to happen," Johnson said.
"We have talked about the issue for years and we still haven’t found a solution. Cuba wants to trade on equal terms, but the problem is that in the U.S. they are looking at it from an erroneous point of view," he said, "At this time, we need more alliances."
Johnson argued that the first step toward a change is educating U.S. citizens about Cuba, its society and people, saying, "For example, in Chicago people don’t know much about Cuba and the incentives the country offers. When I say I’m going to the Havana trade fair and am selling products there, everyone is surprised. It’s incredible, but no one knows we can do it."
Chicago Foods has organized a group called the Illinois American Trade Association, in an attempt to unite companies which would like to do business with Cuba.
"I’m from Chicago. We are trying to unite producers in order to together construct a trade policy directly between [the state of] Illinois and Cuba. We have a forum to discuss the issue, an Internet page with 14 points directed toward that goal."
Will this be possible?
"In life there are more challenges than successes, but we have to take advantage of the victories to arm ourselves and confront problems that come up. Perhaps there are many obstacles, but we have to think positively and work. We have the energy and we have to use it in a positive way. We cannot continue with a 50-year-old policy that doesn’t work. It must be changed."