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Saturday, 17 November, 2001, 23:02 GMT
Castro welcomes one-off US trade
A man looks at the ruins of his home
Thousands of homes have been destroyed
Cuban President Fidel Castro has opened the way for the purchase of food from the US for the first time since Washington imposed its economic embargo 40 years ago.

In a speech in Havana President Castro said: "We are ready, just for this once, to acquire certain quantities of food and medicine from the United States, paying them in cash."

President Fidel Castro
Castro: Ready to buy but wants an end to sanctions
He said the goods could be transported on American vessels, reversing a previous insistence that the shipment be picked up and carried on Cuban boats - a condition rejected by Washington.

Cuba proposed a one-off cash purchase after declining an offer of humanitarian aid from the US in the wake of Hurricane Michelle, which caused massive damage across the island earlier this month.

The purchase is now subject to US approval.

But President Castro insisted that Cuba would not buy any other goods from the United States while the embargo remained in place.

"We hope for a continual lessening of the obstacles that exist and that one day the blockade will disappear," Mr Castro told a regional trade forum.

Aid offered

The United States had offered to help Cuba recover from the hurricane.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Washington was prepared to give direct assistance to the Cuban people as long the aid did not benefit the communist government.

But Havana declined, expressing its "gratitude" for the offer and proposing the food and medicine purchases instead.

The Cuban authorities are still struggling to clean up after the country's worst hurricane in more than 50 years battered the island.

Flooding in Jaguey Grande
Clean-up operations are continuing after the worst storm in living memory
With gusts of up to 200km/h (125mph), Hurricane Michelle caused extensive damage to Cuba's electricity infrastructure, ruined crops and left many communities unreachable by car or telephone.

The US Congress approved food exports to Cuba last year, easing the embargo imposed in 1961.

But the legislation does not permit US financing of such transactions, nor allow the purchase of foods and medicines from Cuba.

See also:

05 Nov 01 | Americas
Cuba's clean-up begins
18 Sep 00 | Sci/Tech
Nature's lethal weapons
19 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
Decades of major hurricanes ahead
17 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Hurricanes set to grow fiercer
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