(CNSNews.com) - Even though four U.S. companies have signed contracts to sell food to Cuba, the Bush administration made it clear on Tuesday: The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba "stands firm as a U.S. foreign policy."
Lino Gutierrez, an assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, told a Washington audience that it is Cuban leader Fidel Castro - not the United States - who is having a change of heart on U.S.-Cuba trade.
According to Gutierrez, any U.S. companies that end up selling food and medicine to Cuba will do so in full compliance with U.S. law. Congress authorized food exports to Cuba last year, but at the same time it refused to let Cuba tap into American sources of financing to make those food and medicine purchases. The Cuban government has complained bitterly about the law.
After a damaging hurricane in Cuba earlier this month, four U.S. companies signed contracts with Cuba - the first such contracts in four decades -- to supply the communist nation with $20 million worth of food.
Representatives from Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Riceland Food and ConAgra signed agreements with Cuba's state run company Alimport to provide wheat, corn, soybeans and rice. The Commerce Department must now approve the deals, in which Cuba must pay cash.
Earlier, the U.S. State Department offered to send emergency food and medicine to Cuba, and it also offered to send a team of specialists to evaluate the nation's humanitarian needs after the hurricane.
The Castro government politely refused the State Department offer, then contradicted itself by proposing that the U.S. sell it food and medicine -- on Cuba's terms.
"The change which has taken place here is that Castro has reversed himself," Gutierrez said Tuesday.
He said it is Castro who is backing away from his prior insistence that Cuba will not buy a single grain of American rice until the U.S. government permits him to arrange U.S. financing for such purchases, and until Cuban goods can be sold in the U.S.
"Castro has done a 180," Gutierrez said, while United States has held firm: "Our policy continues to be to encourage a rapid, peaceful, transition to a democratic Cuba and characterize a full respect for human rights and open markets."
Gutierrez said the U.S. offer to send a State Dept. team to Cuba to assess its post-hurricane needs still stands. But that's not what Castro wants, he said: "What Cuba does want to do is purchase food and medicine to replenish its civil defense stockpiles."
On another topic, Gutierrez described the Cuban military as a "disciplined hierarchy and a wealth of economic strength that is well positioned to survive a post-Castro transition."
He said the Cuban military is better off economically than are many other institutions in Cuba.
As Fidel Castro ages, speculation grows about Cuba's future without its longtime dictator.
See Earlier Story:
Report Predicts Democracy Will Return To Cuba After Castro's Death (29 Oct. 2001)