HAVANA The value of U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba soared 61 percent in 2008 to $710 million, a record amount since American producers began exporting to Cuba under a 2001 amendment to the U.S. trade embargo against the communist-run island, a U.S. trade council said on Wednesday.
The booming sales, up from $437.5 million in 2007, made Cuba the United States' 29th largest agricultural export market.
It was the 37th largest market in 2007, said the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which monitors trade with Cuba.
The group said in a statement that the increased sales were due mainly to higher food prices, with increased volume in some products. U.S. policy requires that the goods be purchased in cash.
Cuba has said it imported more food in 2008 due to crop damage from three hurricanes that battered the island last year and paid more for what it bought due to rising fuel and commodity prices worldwide.
Its primary U.S. purchases included corn, wheat, chicken and soybean products, the council said.
The United States was Cuba's 5th largest trading partner in 2007, the last year for which Cuban data are available.
Congressional lobbyists working to further open trade with Cuba point to the food sales as an indicator of broader potential at a time when the U.S. economy is struggling.
The 47-year-old trade embargo was tightened under President George W. Bush, but his successor, President Barack Obama, has said he would ease it by lifting restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to Cuba and the amount of money they can send to Cuban relatives.
Obama has said he would maintain the embargo unless Cuba changes its political and human rights policies.
Trade Council senior policy advisor John Kavulich told Reuters that pressure to ease the embargo could increase if Cuba sales continue to be strong.
"If Cuba continues to increase its purchases of food and agricultural products in 2009, and the U.S. economy continues to be problematic, President Obama will receive bipartisan pressures from members of Congress and from state governors to use executive orders as a means of providing greater export opportunities," he said.
A bill lifting all travel restrictions to the communist-run island was introduced this week, and another allowing Cuba to access U.S. banks to buy U.S. food will be introduced soon, congressional sources said.
Kavulich said the fate of any legislation to put more holes in the embargo will depend in part on how Cuba "relates to its citizens and how it relates to other countries, particularly Venezuela, China, Russia and Iran."
Cuban President Raul Castro has on several occasions indicated his interest in talks with the United States, but said they must held with no pre-conditions on Cuba.
(Editing by Jeff Franks and Cynthia Osterman)