HOUSTON, Texas — Cuba has moved just behind Japan and Mexico as the third largest single-country market for U.S. rice, according to recent.

U.S. census data places U.S. rice exports to Cuba at a record $27.96 million for the first three months of 2004. U.S. rice exports to Japan reached $116.9 million and sales to Mexico topped $41.1 million for the same period.

In 2003, Mexico was the top market for U.S. rice, reaching a record $140.5 million; Japan was second. Cuba was a distant 24th.

U.S. rice exports to Cuba have surged since late 2000 when U.S. law began to permit sales to the island nation for the first time in 40 years.

Shipments to Cuba did not begin arriving until 2002. U.S. exports have grown significantly in each of the last three years.

The potential is very large in this rice-loving country, according to the industry group USA Rice. Overall, Cuba imports nearly 600,000 metric tons (milled basis) of rice, but only one-sixth or so currently originates from the United States. Vietnam is the major supplier.

U.S. law restricts sales to Cuba to cash basis only.