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In Cuba, agribusiness as usual
Kevin Diaz
Star Tribune Washington Bureau Correspondent
Published 09/02/2003

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A year ago this month, Fidel Castro was mugging for the cameras with a bull named "Minnesota Red," and a cigar-chomping Jesse Ventura was dancing at the Club Habana in Cuba.

The mambo party has died down a little since then: Castro imprisoned dozens of dissidents and journalists this past March, accusing them of being U.S. spies. He also had three men executed by firing squad for trying to hijack a ferry out of the Communist nation.

The Bush administration now won't let Cuban diplomats in Washington, D.C., even buy and sell cars, and a U.S. food show planned for Havana in January has been canceled because the Treasury Department won't grant the necessary permits. Exhibitors need special licenses exempting them from laws against spending money in Cuba.

Efforts to ease travel restrictions to Cuba -- an idea that seemed to be gaining momentum last fall -- appear to have stalled as Congress returns to work this week.

The administration is clamping down on "people-to-people" visits sponsored by U.S. schools and non-profit groups, with most current licenses expected to expire by the end of the year.

But even if folk musicians no longer greet U.S. business travellers at Cuba's Jose Marti International airport, the Cuban government is still placing food orders. And U.S. companies, such as Hormel, based in Austin, Minn., and Cargill Inc., based in Minnetonka, are still filling them.

The trade show that Ventura headlined has generated $92 million in U.S. food contracts with Cuba. The United States supplanted France this year as Cuba's top food supplier. Next year, total sales are expected to top $200 million.

Big Chill or not, it's agribusiness as usual for U.S. farmers -- albeit with a less hoopla.

"Last year, executives of U.S. companies were acting in open defiance of the wishes of the president of the United States when it came to Cuba," said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, which monitors trade between the two former Cold War antagonists.

Now, however, "there's a sobering that's taken place," he said. "You don't have the same exuberance, irrational as it was at times."

'Frosting'

Exuberance or no, U.S. food sales to Cuba are still on the upswing. And much of it is attributed to last fall's "charm offensive" by Castro, who seemed determined to make the trip worthwhile for U.S. food producers such as Ralph Kaehler, the cattleman from St. Charles, Minn., who brought along "Minnesota Red."

Kaehler and his sons, Seth and Cliff, became the stars of the show when Castro entered their bull pen as an international gaggle of television cameras recorded it all.

"It gave us exposure," Kaehler said, "but once we were there we had to earn the business ourselves."

Since then, Kaehler has had to wait for Cuban buyers and veterinarians to get visas to visit his operation. But it paid off in July when two of his animals joined a shipment of 139 head of U.S. cattle bound for Cuba, about half of them from Iowa and Minnesota.

Kaehler described the small sale as "frosting," rather than the cake. "But eventually they're going to buy a whole load of feed cattle from us."

In 2002, a year after Congress cracked the 42-year-old economic embargo and permitted cash-only food sales to the nation of 11 million, Cuba bought $138 million of food from the United States, mostly in such bulk commodities as corn, wheat, rice and soy products.

This year, U.S. food sales to Cuba are expected to exceed $166 million, and $200 million next year.

While the Bush administration officially frowns on the sales, it has not tried to stop them.

"We've continued to do business quietly," said Anthony DeLio, a corporate vice president for Illinois-based ADM, which accounts for about half of all U.S. food sales to Cuba.

"They're still placing orders, and we're delivering."

Cargill, which has sold 300,000 metric tons of food to Cuba since 2001, reports that little has changed in its business relationship with Cuba in the past year.

"Although the politics have ebbed and flowed, the business has been good, and it has been consistent," said Van Yeutter, a Washington representative for Cargill.

'Miserable lives'

Some would-be sellers have been turned off by the past year's escalation of tensions with Castro. Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and a Maryland contingent have put off trips to Cuba, as have a handful of private companies.

Those who continue to do business with Castro's government hold to the logic that the sales help U.S. farmers and that trade will lead to a greater openness in Cuba.

That's the position of the bipartisan House Cuba Working Group, which includes Minnesota U.S. Reps. Jim Ramstad, a Republican, and Collin Peterson, a Democrat.

But that proposition has come under attack since Castro's crackdown on dissidents in March and April.

"I don't see any evidence that trade undermines repressive regimes," said Dennis Hays, executive vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation, an anti-Castro exile group. "It creates partnerships with repressive regimes, which continues people's miserable lives."

Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., a co-sponsor of legislation to lift travel restrictions to Cuba, argues that the limited sales of food to the island so far hardly permit a "fair assessment" of the effects of trade.

Dayton acknowledged, however, that Castro's harsh measures this spring made it more difficult to move toward normalization of relations.

It is all the more unlikely, Dayton said, considering the onset of a presidential election year in which Florida, with its large Cuban exile community, could again prove decisive -- with two more electoral votes than it had in 2000.

All of which mystifies trade proponents who wonder what Castro was thinking when -- on the same day the U.S. ground war began in Iraq -- he launched a wave of arrests against 75 political dissidents.

The arrests and subsequent executions have gotten the attention of Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who said he is planning a trip to Cuba soon to monitor the human rights situation.

One view is that Castro calculated that a distracted world wouldn't take much notice. Another is that he feared growing American bellicosity. But the most prevalent view is that Castro, no matter how much he needs to feed his people, also needs to keep the United States at arm's length.

Kevin Diaz is at [email protected].

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