For U.S. exporters in Cuba, business trumps politics
By James C. Mckinley Jr.
Monday, November 12, 2007
HAVANA: A trade fair in Communist Cuba is perhaps the last place you
would expect to find a Republican governor from the American heartland.
Yet last week, Governor Dave Heineman of Nebraska was here to sign a
deal to export $11 million worth of his state's wheat to the island.
Asked the obvious question about whether longstanding American trade
sanctions should be lifted, Governor Heineman ducked and weaved like a
professional boxer. "Well, I try not to get into that, because that's up
to the president and the Congress, but I will say expanding trade
relationships is good for Nebraska and altogether good for America," he
Just weeks after President George W. Bush delivered an address calling
on the world to isolate Cuba, officials from Minnesota, Alabama and Ohio
— and more than 100 American businesses — were working the giant Havana
International Fair, trying to secure part of the $1.6 billion the Cuban
government spends each year to import sugar, wheat, livestock, poultry
and beans, among other staples.
Those business interests clash with the Bush administration's
anti-Castro policies, as well as the need of both Democrats and
Republicans to court Cuban exiles in Florida, a crucial voting bloc. So
while some trade with Cuba is allowed, it is fraught with restrictions.
A 1992 law, for instance, denies ships access to American ports for six
months after they have docked in Cuba, making shipping tricky, to say
Several Americans here said they were frustrated that the sanctions have
proved more a source of irritation for those who want to do business
with Cuba than a crippling blow to Fidel Castro.
"They are doing everything they can to make it difficult," said Ralph
Kaehler, a Minnesota farmer who sells cattle feed in Cuba. "It's
American businesspeople and state officials have been coming to the fair
for six years, ever since Congress gave in to pressure from the
agriculture lobby in late 2000, during the waning days of the Clinton
administration, and lifted a four-decade ban on selling food to Cuba.
Since then, the number of farm states and agribusinesses who want a
piece of the Cuban market has been growing, despite the Bush
administration's steady tightening of sanctions. For farm states, the
need for jobs has trumped cold-war politics.
"It's helped our economy," said Ron Sparks, the Alabama agriculture
commissioner, as he talked with people near the booth for the Mobile
Port Authority. "It's helped our farmers. I don't talk national policy."
Now in its 25th year, the annual trade fair drew more than 1,000
companies from 53 countries to a sprawling fairground known as Expocuba
just outside Havana.
The atmosphere was festive, with more than a dozen restaurants where
people drank Havana Club rum and puffed on Cuba's famous cigars, a treat
several Americans appeared to enjoy. The five-day fair, which ended
Saturday, also attracted hundreds of ordinary Cubans.
Aside from state officials, the American delegation included several
shipping companies and large agricultural outfits like Pilgrim's Pride,
Cargill and Purdue. Their sales representatives worked in the booths all
day before returning to the Hotel Nacional, an art deco landmark, and
then heading out to enjoy the Havana night life.
Some Americans at the fair predicted that Cuba's market would open up
more after Fidel Castro gave up power permanently, and they said they
wanted to get a head start on deal making. Many envision a return to the
prerevolution days when the United States was Cuba's biggest trading
partner, as wheat and durable goods flowed south while sugar, tobacco
and rum flowed north.
But financial and travel restrictions have never been tighter, as the
Bush administration has quietly stepped up the prohibition of tourism to
and from Cuba and invented new ways to squeeze the island financially.
It has also increased efforts to fine international banks that handle
transactions in dollars for the Cuban government as well as companies
that do business in both Cuba and the United States.
American farmers complain that Washington has also tried to find ways to
hinder agricultural sales to the island. Since the ban was lifted in
2000, an exception to the general trade embargo against Cuba, sales from
American farmers to the island have risen to about $500 million a year,
Cuban officials say.
But the Bush administration has required the purchases to be made in
cash and, since 2004, that the payment must be received before shipment.
The system has created immense logistical headaches for American
shippers and food exporters. Loads of grain and poultry end up waiting
for days on a dock until proof of payment arrives, shippers said.
"There are lot of delays in loading because of that," said Eric Junker,
the owner of Americana Marine Services, which ships grain to the island.
Bush and other supporters of the sanctions maintain that every dollar
that enters Cuba helps support a despotic regime. In his speech on Oct.
24, Bush asked Congress to maintain the embargo and said the transfer of
power from Fidel Castro, who has been ill, to his brother Raúl, amounted
to "exchanging one dictator for another." He called for elections after
Fidel Castro's death.
Cuban officials argue the embargo hurts American farmers more than it
does the government here. But they also acknowledge the American
attempts to punish foreign companies for doing business here have hurt
them in dozens of small ways, from limiting their ability to buy to
certain medicines to making it impossible to get spare parts for
"The blockade makes doing business here insecure," said Pedro Álvarez
Borrego, the chairman of Alimport, the government-owned company that
The biggest blow, however, has been to tourism. The minister for
tourism, Manuel Madero, said that before Bush took office, about 80,000
Americans visited Cuba every year, usually going through Mexico or
another country. He declined to give a number for the current year, but
said it had been reduced to trickle.
Luis Morejón, who operates a small tour company, said he used to arrange
tours for at least 30 Americans a year in the late 1990s. "Now this
whole year I haven't had one," he said.