By visiting Cuba, Otter puts trade before politics
April 12, 2007
Hard telling what Idaho Gov. Butch Otter is up to in Cuba.
He arrived in Havana on Tuesday, but since checking back with his staff
in Boise has been semi-incommunicado. Although his hotel rents out cell
phones, the fees are apparently exorbitant and the service sporadic. You
have to leave a message at the hotel, or with a member of the delegation
traveling with him, and hope he calls back. Same with e-mail. And faxes
are not getting through.
That sounds like an opportunity for makers of telecommunications
equipment. Unfortunately, U.S. firms are not allowed to sell their gear
in Cuba. American firms can sell almost nothing in Cuba except medical
supplies, food, and wood products.
Which, of course, explains the presence in Cuba of Otter and 35 other
Idaho government and business officials. While the Bush administration
persists in pursuing a Cold War with the failing Fidel Castro, Idaho and
other states have undertaken their own diplomatic and trade initiatives.
They have been remarkably successful given a trade embargo imposed 45
Thanks to the limited trade window former U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt,
R-Spokane, helped open in 2000, the U.S. has become the largest provider
of foodstuffs to Cuba. American farmers sold $340 million worth of
chicken, wheat and other farm products there last year, putting Cuba at
No. 34 among all nations as a buyer of U.S. food exports.
Sales since 2001 exceed $2 billion.
Two weeks ago, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman returned from Cuba with a
contract for almost $17 million in new sales of wheat and pork. The deal
brings Nebraska's total sales to $60 million. The most recent sale might
have been bigger but for increasing U.S. commodity prices.
So far, Idaho has sold very little in Cuba. But if anyone can build a
trade surplus with that country, Otter can. Not only is this his fourth
visit — he made his first three as congressman — the former J.R. Simplot
salesman has apparently established something of a mano-a-mano
relationship with Castro. Whether he will meet the ailing dictator or
Raúl Castro, his stand-in, probably will not be known until he gets a
summons. That's been the case during past visits.
Persistence pays off when building trade relationships. Heineman, for
example, has been to Cuba three times. Also, Otter spokesman Jon Hanian
says Otter kept the delegation relatively small because he wanted to
give the agriculture representatives room to make some sales.
"We're trying to do more business there than we've done in the past,"
Meanwhile, fellow Idahoan Sen. Larry Craig, a companion of Otter's on an
earlier Cuba trip, is co-sponsoring a Senate bill that, among other
things, would allow U.S. oil companies to operate in Cuban waters and to
sell drilling equipment to the Cubans. There are early signs waters
around the island may hold some of the oil riches the U.S. has been
exploiting for years in the Gulf of Mexico.
Craig and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., have also co-sponsored past
legislation to lift some of the credit restrictions that have impeded
more robust Cuban purchases of U.S. food. Cantwell has visited Cuba twice.
Still, the Bush Administration continues to make clear its opposition to
any liberalization of trade with Cuba. In February, Cuban-born Commerce
Secretary Carlos Gutierrez called those who believe trade will weaken
Communism in Cuba naïve. Lifting the embargo, he said, will not create
the market for U.S. goods that supporters of more open trade believe.
He likened Cuba to North Korea, apparently not mentioning that two weeks
earlier the administration had put the U.S. on the road to a better
relationship with Kim Jong-il than it has with Castro.
Nethercutt says he finds the administration approach discouraging.
"You need to build relationships," he says. "Trade is a great vehicle
Otter is right where he should be, doing right by the people of Idaho.