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U.S. Companies Flock To Cuba

Life for most Cubans is a bare bones existence. The average wage is about $13 a month. But health care and education are free, and no one goes hungry because every Cuban receives a food ration.

There are open-air markets all over Cuba with mostly home grown products. But the truth is that Cuba doesn't come close to producing enough food for its people, reports CBS News correspondent Russ Mitchell. Up to thirty percent of the food Cuba imports comes from the United States — that's more than from any other country.

Despite the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo, today U.S. companies are flocking to Cuba — all because of a loophole Congress approved in 2000 that allows for the sale of American food to Cuba. What started as a trickle has turned into a half billion dollar flood of sales each year.

"I think it's substantial," said Kirby Jones of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association, in response to a question about U.S. food sales to Cuba. "I think in the $100's of millions or billions of dollars."

Jones, a lobbyist and deal-maker, represents dozen's of U.S. companies in Cuba.

"The impression in the United States is that Cuba is stagnant — locked into some rigid communist ideology and structure," said Jones. "Cuba is totally different, hundreds of companies do business with Cuba."

Three years ago Cuba was purchasing about $1.7 million in poultry from the United States, according to Ron Sparks, Alabama's Commissioner of Agriculture. "Now they are purchasing about $57 million of poultry and 40 to 50 percent of that comes out of Alabama," says Sparks.

And it's not just Alabama. There are 37 U.S. states that export food to Cuba, according to Pedro Alvarez, who oversees the importing of food to Cuba. Alvarez thinks that U.S. food imports to Cuba would skyrocket if trade was normalized between the two countries.

"In the first five years, trade and services would be more than 20 billion dollars," Alvarez told Mitchell.

"The Cuban dictator has spent a considerable amount of money making agricultural purchases to try to influence the Congress to get what he really wants, which is mass U.S. tourism," said Florida Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

Diaz-Balart, like other critics of Castro, charges Cuba is hoping U.S. politicians, eager to boost their state's economies, will pressure Congress to lift the trade embargo.

"The political prisoners in Cuba ask us — keep the embargo until we are freed, until political parties are legalized and elections are scheduled in Cuba," said Diaz-Balart.

But two Cuban dissidents who spoke to CBS News say trade with the United States could be beneficial to their cause.

"I agree with companies of United States here in Cuba because investment comes with people, and people have ideas," Oscar Espinosa Chepe told Mitchell. "These will be injections of ideas, democratic ideas."

In 2003, Espinosa Chepe was charged with sedition and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was recently released because of poor health. His wife, Miriam Leiva, is a journalist.

"I think little by little this could bring about democracy in Cuba," said Leiva.

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