( AP ) - California hopes it can carve out an upscale market for such goodies as pistachios, figs, kiwi fruit and wine in Cuba, the land of ration cards and rice and beans at nearly every meal.
America's top food-producing state has sent its first official agricultural trade mission to Havana to show its powdered milk and dairy products, as well a wide array of fruits, vegetables, nuts, dates, rice and cotton to the communist government.
California produces 400 types of farm products, but many specialized items - including raisins, wine and almonds - are produced in few other parts of America.
"We have a dozen products where we represent 95 percent of total U.S. production. There are many products that could do well here," California Food and Agriculture Secretary A.G. Kawamura told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Kawamura follows agricultural secretaries from 18 other states who have visited Cuba in recent years, and acknowledged that California is behind many states in establishing major trade relationships here. Despite being America's largest generator of agricultural trade, his state shipped only $735,000 worth of farm products to Cuba in 2006, largely powdered milk, rice and wine.
Washington's embargo prevents U.S. tourists from visiting Cuba and prohibits nearly all trade. But a 2000 law allows the Cuban government to buy U.S. food and agricultural products in cash, and America has been the island's leading source of food and farm items since 2003.
Including shipping and logistical costs, Cuba imported $600 million worth of U.S. agricultural goods in 2007.
Kawamura said U.S. states that are near Cuba have a natural trade advantage, but that California could supply the $180 million in products that Cuba now imports from around the world.
Kawamura said California's top sellers in Cuba would be products that can survive long shipping periods - things like processed tomatoes, and also more expensive items.
"If you're here, you live here and you'd like to have pistachios, I wonder how many other Cubans would like to have more access to pistachios," he said. "Great if we can help fill that demand."
Typical diets on the island include foods available through the government's ration program: rice, potatoes, beans, small amounts of meat and other basic goods. Fruits and vegetables are often luxuries. While many Cubans receive funds sent by relatives in the United States, few families are likely to have enough money for nuts or figs when the average monthly state salary is about $19.50.
Still, diplomats and other foreigners can already buy some U.S. specialty items such as Tabasco Sauce, Heinz Ketchup and M& M chocolate candies at government-run Cuban supermarkets. Many American goods are sold at triple their normal prices or higher, and in some cases gather dust on the shelves.
But Kawamura said California aspires to be competitive with whatever Cubans are buying.
" California will have products that everyone can afford," he said. "Even if we will certainly have products that will be expensive to some."