January 14, 2006
He hasn’t had much luck yet with the last part.
Six years ago, Congress passed exemptions to the 45-year trade embargo with communist Cuba that allow the sale of agricultural products and medical supplies. Since then, U.S. exports to Cuba grew from $7.1 million in 2001 to $400 million in 2004. Cuba has bought $900 million worth of U.S. agricultural products in the past five years.
At least 37 states have led trade delegations to Cuba. The Republican governor of Nebraska, Dave Heineman, went twice last year. According to the Lincoln Journal Star, agreeing to a second trip helped secure a $30 million trade agreement with Cuban commodity broker Alimport that is the single largest agreement signed with an American state. Nebraska will sell them corn, wheat, soybeans, beef and beans.
“This is an emerging market we cannot ignore,” Heineman said.
Reis was intrigued by the success of Nebraska’s efforts.
“This is a terrific opportunity for the Colorado ag industry,” he told me Wednesday. “We can stand on principle with a few other states or we can help our ag community. Somebody has to step up and organize, and I would like to lead the effort.”
The World Trade Center Denver belongs to a network of 288 such centers in 74 countries. The centers provide business services, international business training and global connections for their members. Reis, a Johns Manville executive for 26 years, has run the Denver center since 1990.
“We have a sister World Trade Center in Havana that comes to our meetings around the world,” Reis said. “They will help us set up meetings. Late last summer, we got word that the Cubans would be a lot more receptive to placing orders if there was an elected official in our delegation. The indications are that they would treat us courteously in any case, but don’t expect much business if we aren’t accompanied by an elected official. I’m not going to tell people ‘Let’s go get business’ when we won’t.”
Reis isn’t naive about the Cuban motives.
“I can only guess that, from their own political point of view, having a U.S. elected official as part of a trade delegation shows the U.S. is split over Cuba,” he said. “I’m a straight business person. They’ve got money, and they want to buy my product. I come from the big city. That’s life in the big city. I’m also a member of the human race. They have people who need food.”
Reis said he so far has contacted the offices of U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, a Democrat, and both U.S. senators, Democrat Ken Salazar and Republican Wayne Allard. He hasn’t heard back. I had a long chat with Gov. Bill Owens on Thursday about whether he would go.
“You do have to look at who you’re dealing with,” Owens said. “They have blood on their hands. The state of Colorado won’t be part of it. If I went, I’d have a private dinner with Fidel Castro, I’d be in the presidential palace, I’d see things I’d love to see. But I don’t want to be part of what he represents.”
Owens was just getting warmed up.
“I don’t believe Fidel is a kindly avuncular cigar-smoking guy in fatigues we look at as a bit of an irritant. And I don’t regard Che Guevara as a romantic figure. Fidel is a mass murderer who wishes only harm on our country. The fact he hasn’t been able to doesn’t mean we should forget it.
“As a young man during the Cold War, I decided the greatest challenge facing us was communism,” Owens continued. “As far as I’m concerned, Castro is only a step or two removed in capability and in lust for power from people like Stalin, Mao and others. He is the person who tried to get the Soviet Union to launch nuclear weapons against us during the Cuban missile crisis. He’s the same guy who was putting people against the wall and shooting them. I’m not willing to be a part of any effort to help his economy so long as he’s in power.”
Owens and Reis personify the two main U.S. views toward Cuba: back the embargo to the hilt until Castro is forced into democratic reform or try to effect change inside Cuba through trade, tourism and otherwise steady exposure to the American way.
“There’s a tradeoff on all these things,” Reis said. “My mom used to say two wrongs don’t make a right, but two rights trump a wrong. We can help our farmers and help the Cuban people by delivering quality food. Mr. Castro has to explain to those people why food has to come from others and why they should hate Americans who are trying to help them.”
The alternative is to do nothing, Reis said. “All that does is strengthen the position of the oppressor. Let’s build those repressed people up and make them stronger. The reality is that after 45 years with an embargo in effect, the man is still in power. We haven’t proven anything with an embargo thus far. Castro is in his 70s. His life span is not forever. Why not start opening channels with the Cuban population now? I’d like to do it sooner rather than later. I’d like to lead a mission as early as this spring.”
Reis has talked to eight different Colorado ag associations, including the Potato Growers Association, the Colorado Farm Bureau, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and the Colorado Wheat Committee.
A trade fair in Havana last fall netted $270 million in contracts with U.S. agricultural firms. The fair was attended by 188 U.S. companies from 31 states. Cuba will import 30,000 tons of peas from North Dakota after GOP Gov. John Hoeven – a close friend of Owens – led a delegation. Virginia farmers signed $20 million in contracts. Alabama signed deals worth $19 million worth of chicken, minced meat and wooden utility poles. Maine’s Democratic Gov. John Baldacci signed $10 million in contracts last month. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, another Democrat, helped secure contracts for $15 million in ag goods from her state.
In 2005, the United States became the island’s biggest food supplier.
“I’d like to help our farmers help their people by delivering quality food,” Reis said.
On the other side, Owens said, “I’d love to go, I know so much about it. Some day I will, but it won’t be under Fidel. When Fidel is dead in two or three years – and I hope it happens that rapidly – the next regime will be different. And in the meantime, I won’t be any less a friend to Jim Reis for his going.”
Business editor Rob Reuteman can be reached at 303-892-5177 or reutemanr@RockyMountainNews.com.