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Cuban coffee returning to U.S., but only for Nespresso brewers

Nestle has begun to reposition itself since Ulf Mark Schneider, who previously headed up German healthcare group Fresenius, took over the reins of the Swiss firm at the start of the year (AFP Photo/FABRICE COFFRINI) (AFP/File)

By Lisa Baertlein and Marcy Nicholson

LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK, June 20 (Reuters) - Nestle SA's Nespresso says it will become the first company to import coffee from Cuba to the United States in more than 50 years amid smoothing trade relations between the Cold War adversaries.

The U.S. State Department in April added coffee and other products to its list of eligible imports produced by independent Cuban entrepreneurs.

That regulatory change cleared the way for Nespresso to begin U.S. sales of Cafecito de Cuba, a premium espresso roast for its home brewers, this autumn, the company said on Monday.

Initially available in limited quantities, Cafecito de Cuba aims to deliver on Nespresso's mission to deliver "exclusive, unique coffee experiences," Guillaume Le Cunff, Nespresso USA president, said.

Nespresso also is partnering with nonprofit TechnoServe, to support independent coffee farmers on the Caribbean island.

"We want consumers in the U.S. to experience this incredible coffee and to enjoy it now and for years to come," said Le Cunff, who aims to forge long-term relationships with Cuban producers.

Cuba harvests about 100,000 60-kg bags of arabica coffee annually, according to International Coffee Organization (ICO) data. While that is about five times the annual production of Jamaica, it is just a fraction of this year's expected 13.5 million bag harvest from Colombia, the world's biggest grower of high-quality washed arabica coffee.

Nespresso sells brewing machines and single-use coffee capsules. Its flagship espresso maker dominates the market in Europe, where such drinks are preferred, but trails Green Mountain Coffee Roasters' Keurig system in the United States.

Nespresso competes with a bevy of other global brands for sought-after beans. Those rivals include Starbucks Corp , which told Reuters it has "no plans to import coffee from Cuba at this time."

The United States imposed trade restrictions on Cuba in 1960, after the government of revolutionary leader Fidel Castro seized private land, nationalized scores of private companies and imposed heavy taxes on U.S. imports. President John F. Kennedy issued a permanent embargo in 1962.

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro stunned the world in December 2014 by abruptly announcing that the countries would move to restore diplomatic relations.

(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles and Marcy Nicholson in New York; Editing by Sandra Maler)