Iowa farmer hosts top Cuba officials, gets cigars
Kevin Hardy, firstname.lastname@example.org 6:58 p.m. CDT June 3, 2016
But on Friday morning, Aaron Heley Lehman’s organic farm in Polk City
played host to some of Cuba’s top governmental officials.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Lehman said.
He recently had cleaned up the yard and mowed the lawn in anticipation
of a visit from Cuban Agriculture Minister Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero and
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Cuba’s ambassador to the
United States, José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez, was also on hand Friday.
The two agriculture officials spent the day touring central Iowa,
visiting DuPont Pioneer in Johnston, Iowa State University’s seed center
and Lincolnway Energy in Nevada. In Polk City, they briefly chatted with
Lehman before holding a news conference in front of one of his tractors.
The visit represented only the third time such a high-ranking official
from Cuba has visited the United States.
The minister and the secretary called for increased cooperation between
U.S. and Cuban farmers.
“We have a lot to learn from each other,” said the former Iowa governor.
“This training relationship can not only be a benefit to American
farmers, it can be an equal benefit to Cuban farmers. And it has to be.
Trade must be a two-way street.”
Vilsack said an improved relationship with Cuba can begin with agriculture.
He reminded reporters of then-Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s
visit to Iowa in 1959, at the height of the Cold War. Khrushchev visited
Iowa State University and a Coon Rapids farm on the high-profile trip.
“Abraham Lincoln once said that the best way to eliminate an enemy is to
make a friend,” Vilsack said. “I don’t know of anything more powerful in
making friendships and eliminating past challenges than agriculture.”
Rollero said farmers in the United States and Cuba have similar
interests and challenges. He mentioned water quality, sustainability
efforts and emerging seed technologies. He said he left the Pioneer
facility “favorably impressed.”
“There are many areas of agriculture in which we have common views,”
Rollero said through an interpreter. “And what is left to be done is to
deepen our collaboration.”
Like those in other states, Iowa businesses have been eyeing opportunity
in Cuba since President Barack Obama began re-establishing diplomatic
relations. Vilsack has previously said he expects such diplomatic visits
will put pressure on Congress to lift the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba.
After their remarks Friday, Lehman and Rollero exchanged gifts a few
steps from the red farmhouse.
For the agriculture minister: some caps, an Iowa Farmers Union coffee
mug, an Iowa Organic Association T-shirt and soap his son made from
goat’s milk. For the farmer: a box of Cuban cigars.
’90-mile bridge to Cuba’
Later in Des Moines, officials celebrated the formation of a group
designed to boost trade between Cuba and the U.S. The Engage Cuba Iowa
Council is the seventh such statewide organization. It’s made up of
local business, agriculture and education leaders.
James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group
working on U.S.-Cuba policy, said decades of “isolationist” policies
through the trade embargo have proved futile.
“It’s failed,” he said. “It’s failed the United States. It’s failed the
people of Iowa. And it’s failed the Cuban people.”
Though the United States is severely restricted in doing business with
Cuba, those regulations were relaxed in 2000 to allow for agricultural
exports to Cuba.
Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, said the
United States was once the largest importer of food to Cuba. It is now
the fifth-largest exporter, behind the European Union nations, Brazil,
Argentina and Vietnam.
“Cuba needs to import 80 percent of their food,” he said. “Much of these
products can be delivered by Iowa farmers.”
Aside from the business interests, Bishop Richard Pates pointed out the
humanitarian costs of political isolation and communism in Cuba. Pates
visited Cuba in 2012 with Pope Benedict XVI. He said he met with many
Cubans living in poverty who were depressed and hopeless.
Pates, the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines, said better
relationships with the U.S. could help the people of Cuba. He invoked
Pope Francis’ message of “building bridges.”
“We’re all one human family. We’re all brothers and sisters,” Pates
said. “I suggest a 90-mile bridge to Cuba is the answer to their future
and will impact our future very positively as well.”
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