Higher prices affecting trade to Cuba
By JILL SCHRAMM, Staff Writer email@example.com
BISMARCK – The political future of ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro
won’t make a pea’s difference in trade between that country and North
Dakota, according to state Agricul-ture Com-missioner Roger Johnson.
But the higher price of peas and other grains has already put the brakes
on talks of more sales to that Caribbean country.
A trade mission scheduled for last week was postponed about a month ago
until next spring. Johnson said the price of agricultural commodities
has risen, which is good news for farmers but not so good news for Cubans.
“The prices have gotten so high,” he said. “There aren’t as many
products available for sale right now at a price that the Cubans want to
pay. We are still doing some business there, but it’s tougher.”
A group of 10 U.S. lawmakers who just returned from Cuba Sunday reported
to the Associated Press that Castro doesn’t have cancer or a terminal
illness. The U.S. officials said the 80-year-old leader is expected to
eventually return to public life, although they couldn’t say to what
extent, if any, he might be involved in the government. Castro hasn’t
been seen publicly since ceding power to his younger brother, Raul
Castro July 26.
Johnson said whether Castro remains in power or permanently cedes
leadership shouldn’t affect trade with Cuba.
“The Cuban government appears to be reasonably stable. Whether Castro is
still around, whether he is back in control or not, I think, is kind of
irrelevant,” he said.
Cuba has undergone an economic transformation since the collapse of the
Soviet Union, he said. The country has established relationships with
other trade partners and has become more capitalistic in how it manages
its economy, he said.
“That really put their economy on a much sounder footing than what it
used to be on,” he said. “I just don’t see how Castro being there or not
will have a major impact on how they do business.”
The younger Castro has called for improved relations with the United
States. However, the Bush administration has intensified the trade
embargo and rejected offers to talk with Cuban officials.
Johnson said new technicalities placed on trade with Cuba in the past
few years have served to reduce the number of firms willing to sell in
the Cuban market. Trade with Cuba in the future rests more on trade
policies in this country than with who is leading Cuba, he said.
“I have felt for a long time that this embargo business that we have
with Cuba is sort of nonsensical and unproductive,” he said.
Johnson sees sentiments in Congress moving that same way, particularly
since the change in makeup with the last election. Lawmakers who
traveled to Cuba indicated that they are receptive to opening talks with
Cuba, a first step in determining the future of an embargo.
Cuba has purchased about $20 million of agricultural products from North
Dakota under an existing 18-month agreement. The agreement allows Cuba
to purchase more than $10 million more in products before next spring.
Johnson said Cuba lacks the wealth to pay top dollar so looks for
bargains in its price range. For instance, Cuba purchased peas bleached
by sun or excess rain at a reduced price. The peas have food quality but
don’t have the eye appeal needed for the food market in the United
States. This year, that supply isn’t there because the pea crop didn’t
have those quality issues.
The majority of Cuba’s purchases have been peas. Cuba also is interested
in North Dakota wheat, but with the increase in wheat prices, it is
difficult for Cuba to buy into that market, Johnson said.