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Virginia, Maryland Prepare for Cuban Detente

"That's always been one of the issues -- whether we should be trading with a regime like the one that currently exists in Cuba," said Dick Atkinson, executive director of the Virginia Soybean Association. "It's something for strong debate."

President John F. Kennedy imposed the comprehensive trade embargo in February 1962 in retaliation for the seizure of U.S. property by Fidel Castro's new government. Thanks to lobbying from farm lobbyists, the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 allowed a narrow trade of food products and medical goods. The first shipment to Cuba contained corn sold by Archer Daniels Midland, the Decatur, Ill.-based agricultural conglomerate. By 2004, the United States had supplanted Europe as the top exporter to Cuba.

In 2005, the Bush administration again tightened restrictions. These required cash payments for U.S. exports to Cuba before the goods left port or financing through letters of credit guaranteed by financial institutions in a third nation, usually in Europe.

Attitudes are shifting. Hernandez said his group changed its position because Fidel Castro has shown signs of exiting his unrivaled position of power and because the standard of living has plummeted in Cuba in recent years. The Cuban American community's support for sanctions against Cuba also has waned.

But John S. Kavulich II, senior policy adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, said state officials and private businesspeople should be wary about rosy predictions of Cuban trade. He argued that a significant reason U.S. exporters have been pleased about the trade is because of the existing financial restrictions that ensure they receive payment for their goods.

"This is still a bankrupt country," Kavulich said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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