Freighter Leaves For Cuba With Shipment of American Corn

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

( - A freighter carrying an estimated 24,000 tons of corn was scheduled to depart New Orleans on Friday and sail for Cuba -- thus becoming the first ship carrying American food to the communist nation since the U.S. instituted the economic embargo back in the 1960's.

The Mexican-owned M.V. Ikan Mazatlan is expected to arrive in Havana late Saturday or early Sunday.

Other food shipments are expected to follow. Reports said a load of frozen poultry was leaving Jacksonville, Fla., for Cuba on Saturday and other grain shipments are expected to depart from Mississippi sometime next week.

The U.S. food shipments to Cuba follow the devastating Hurricane Michelle, which tore through Cuba in early November.

While these are the first U.S. food shipments to Cuba in four decades, they may not be the last.

The U.S. Senate is currently debating language in a farm bill that would allow Cuba to buy U.S. agricultural products on credit, instead of paying for it in cash, as current federal law now requires. Cuba strongly opposes the "cash-only" purchase provision.

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) believes Cuba should be allowed to buy U.S. farm products.

"Don't use food as a weapon. That's what this issue is about. Those who govern in Cuba have never missed a meal because we don't sell food to Cuba," Dorgan said in a Senate speech.

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) said before the United States sells farm products to Cuba the Castro regime must cooperate with President Bush on international terrorism and upgrade its human rights record.

"The president must certify to Congress that convicted felons wanted by the FBI who are currently living as fugitives in Cuba have been returned to the United States for incarceration. The president must certify to Congress that Cuba is not a state sponsor of international terrorism," said Allen on the Senate floor.

Allen added, "Fidel Castro's regime has a long history of providing arms and training to terrorist organizations. Our State Department notes that Havana remains a safe haven to several international terrorists and U.S. fugitives as well."

"I do want to help the people of Cuba," Allen said. "But here's how we help them: First, let's recognize what they're facing. Cuba's human rights record remains poor. It continues to violate systematically the fundamental civil and political rights of its citizens."

Last week, the White House announced its opposition to a Senate proposal allowing the private financing of U.S. food sales to Cuba.

In a statement, the White House said it "strongly opposes" any change in economic sanctions against the Castro government.

"Because of Cuba's continued denial of basic civil rights to its citizens as well as its egregious rejection of the global coalition's efforts against terrorism, the administration strongly opposes a shift to allow private U.S. financing," the White House said.

Recently, 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. Cuba must pay cash for those purchases.