updated 9/3/2006 4:53:28 PM ET 2006-09-03T20:53:28

The general manager of Navajo Agricultural Products Industries, a member of the first trade delegation to Cuba since Fidel Castro temporarily stepped down, has signed a letter of intent to sell food products to Cuba.

''We are honored that our products will help feed the Cuban people,'' said NAPI General Manager Tsosie Lewis, who oversees the Navajos' 68,000-acre commercial farm located in the Four Corners area near Farmington, N.M.

Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. praised Tsosie Lewis for entering into the agreement, and described it as a trade agreement between two sovereign nations.

''We are a sovereign nation and we need to do everything we can to get back on our feet,'' Shirley said, expressing appreciation for the new source of trade.

During the New Mexico Agriculture Trade Mission to Cuba in August, NAPI signed a letter of intent with Alimport, Cuba's state food purchasing agency, to sell yellow corn, wheat, apples, onions, pinto beans and other farm products.

If finalized, the cash-only trade agreement could bring millions of dollars to the Navajo Nation, due to exceptions to the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba.

Under provisions of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, Alimport is allowed to negotiate the purchase of agriculture products directly from U.S. suppliers on a cash-only basis paid in advance by Cuba.

Since passage of the act in 2000, 35 states have entered into agreements to sell American products to Cuba, resulting in incoming revenues of about $1.8 billion

U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., spearheading the New Mexico delegation, said it was the highest-level U.S. delegation to visit Cuba since Castro temporarily turned power over to his younger brother, Raul.

Udall said the delegation did not meet with Fidel or Raul Castro. Fidel, 80, ruled Cuba for 48 years and temporarily handed over the reins of power to his brother after undergoing emergency surgery to stop intestinal bleeding July 31.

Jobs, economic development are key
While the binational trade agreement has not yet been approved by the Navajo Nation council, Shirley pointed out that NAPI is already selling millions of tons of beans to Mexico.

''What it means to the Navajo Nation is revenues. It means jobs. It means economic development,'' Shirley said.

''There are grandmas and grandpas over there. They have to eat,'' Shirley said of Cuba. ''There's nothing illegal about dealing with Cuba as far as selling food items.''

Shirley said this trade agreement was another step forward for Navajo Nation sovereignty and its current policy of reaching out.

''I think that is the most important thing that is happening with this agreement. Of course, it has already happened with the country of Mexico and now with the country of Cuba. The recognition of the Navajo Nation as a nation, a nation within a nation, that's just the way it should be.''

Since 1999, NAPI, a long-time producer of potatoes for potato chip companies, has shown a profit. It has been producing the Navajo Pride brand of corn for more than 30 years and is known for its alfalfa, wheat, barley, pinto beans and onions. The Navajo Pride brand of potatoes includes varieties of Russets, Golds and Reds.

Dry corn, however, is the foundation of Navajo culture. NAPI, in a statement reflecting the product name, said it takes ''great pride'' in producing more than 16 different varieties of dry corn for a number of uses.

''We purchase our seed from Pioneer Seed Co., Syngenta Inc. and Monsanto, companies producing the best quality genetic hybrid corn seed on the market today,'' NAPI said.

A great opportunity’
Upon returning from Cuba, Udall said he hopes the historic agreement not only means jobs, but new relationships.

''This is a great opportunity for NAPI and other New Mexico farmers who have long sought opportunities to sell their products in new markets. I am hopeful the work done during this trip will continue to grow into fruitful relationship between the Cuban people.

''We are very pleased to return home with a letter of intent between NAPI and Alimport providing for the purchase of yellow corn, wheat, apples, onions, pinto beans and other New Mexico grown products.''

Udall said the agreement could mean millions of dollars for American Indians in New Mexico, since Cuba is already purchasing food from the United States.

Udall said the objective of the trip was to promote and facilitate the sale of New Mexican agriculture products with Alimport. Over the course of three days, Udall and the delegation met with Alimport Chairman and CEO Pedro Alvarez Borrego to negotiate potential purchases from New Mexico.

Shirley praised the effort of Udall and pointed out a new direction of the Navajo Nation in international ventures. ''I wholeheartedly support what Congressmen Udall is doing for the NAPI program.''

Shirley said this is not the first international agreement Navajos have signed. In November 2005, the Navajo Nation became a member of OCCAM - the Observatory for Cultural and Audiovisual Communication - a United Nations nongovernmental organization to help indigenous nations around the world develops a wireless telecommunications network like that which exists on Navajoland.

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