Week of February 4, 2002
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'U.S. Agricultural Sales to Cuba' conference
Members of Congress, High-Level Cubans Join
at Conference to Strengthen U.S.-Cuba Ties
By JACK LYNE, Site Selection Executive Editor of Interactive Publishing
There was, for example, the conference question that Cuba Policy Foundation (www.cubapolicyfoundation.org) President Sally Grooms Cowal posed regarding the United States' policy toward Cuba.
"Is there a company in the United States," asked Cowal, "that would not change its business practice if that practice had been a 40-year failure?"
Then there was Cuban Minister of Foreign Trade Raul de la Nuez's vision for the future of U.S.-Cuban trade.
"I expect to see that finally U.S. sanctions will be lifted, and Cuba will be able to trade with the U.S., and both countries will benefit," de la Nuez observed. "I don't see any country with better potential to trade with the U.S. than Cuba."
De la Nuez's comment typified the attitude of the 16-member contingent of high-level Cuban officials who attended the conference at the Melia Cancun Beach and Spa Resort. Cuba, they consistently said, is ready to open up broad-scale trade with America. And the ball for making broad-scale trade a reality is squarely in the U.S. court, they added.
Cuban North American Ministry of Foreign Trade Director Maria de la Luz B'Hamel, for example, noted, "Each gesture from the U.S. side will be corresponded accordingly from the Cuban side." The group of high-level Cuban officials were joined by some 170 other business and government officials at the conference, presented by a coalition of state Farm Bureaus in association with World Development Services (www.wdsweb.com), the GIC Group (www.gicgroup.com), Alamar Associates (www.alamarcuba.com), the World Development Federation (www.wdf.org) and Site Selection (www.siteselection.com).
The conference marked a first that "has never happened before," according to Alamar Associates President Kirby Jones, whose consultant work in Cuba spans 27 years. The Cancun gathering, Jones explained, was the first time that members of the U.S. agricultural community, U.S. senators and representatives, and senior Cuban officials had come together to address U.S.-Cuba trade.
That unique combination may partially explain attendees' inordinately intense focus. The entire conference seemed a case of pent-up supply meeting pent-up demand. Each session, stretching from 6:30 a.m. all the way through 9:00 p.m., was heavily attended.
TSRA, Hurricane Michelle
The TSRA legislation, however, contained a significant sticking point. The law requires the Cuban government to pay cash for U.S. agricultural imports.
The Cuban government balked at the cash-only provision. It indicated that it would continue to buy $750 million worth of goods a year from overseas, most bought from Europe, much of it on credit. Cuba, however, backed off that posture after hurricane Michelle's devastation last November. The hurricane killed eight Cubans, devastated the island's infrastructure and severely damaged Cuba's agricultural sector.
Since then, Cuba has signed contracts to purchase some $36 million of U.S. agricultural exports. Shipments are scheduled to continue into late February.
Jones reflected on how far U.S.-Cuba relations have come. "One of the questions looking forward," he said, "is, What do we do back home to keep this train rolling? And all of that sounds like a symphony to me. Comparing today with the last 40 years, there once was no business with Cuba to be done. Now, there is."
Study: Agricultural Exports Have
The Texas A&M study presented three different scenarios for easing what Cowal called "the Berlin Wall we've put around [Cuba]." The study's "low export growth forecast" - which assumed the removal of no additional sanctions, one-way trade, restricted U.S. investment in Cuba and no increase in U.S tourism in Cuba - predicted $37.5 million in U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba. That tally tracks closely with sales thus far to Cuba.
The payoff is more than 10 times higher for the study's "moderate export growth forecast" - based on all export sanctions being removed, the use of U.S. export finance programs, two-way trade and an increase in U.S. tourism in Cuba. For that scenario, Texas A&M researchers predicted $411 million in U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba.
The potential payoff rises even higher in the "high export growth forecast" - based on removing all U.S. economic sanctions (including finance, travel and investment), lifting restrictions on exports of machinery and implements to Cuba, and 1 million U.S tourists a year visiting Cuba. That scenario offers $1.24 billion in U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba, Texas A&M researchers predicted.
Such potential payoffs explained state farm officials' keen interest at the conference.
Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin, for example, recounted his experience after he became one of the first state farm officials to advocate trade with the Soviet Union. "Some people asked me, 'Do you want to do business with Communists?' " Irvin recalled. "I told them, 'No, I want to do business.'
"If we can do business with unfriendly nations, we can make friends of them," Irvin continued. "I find the Cuban people are willing to meet us more than halfway."
Cuba's Top Diplomat in the U.S.: 'Ready
To Discuss Any Decision to Better Relations'
"Cuba is willing to continue promoting all kinds of changes in our relationship with the United States," said Rodriguez, who is Cuba's top diplomat in the United States. "Cuba is willing and ready to discuss any decision to better relations between our two nations. "Our only condition is independence and sovereignty."
"It is up to the U.S. to make changes," Rodriguez continued. "Every nice gesture will be answered with a nice gesture."
Congressional representatives who spoke at the Cancun conference indicated that they, at least, were ready for a change in U.S.-Cuba relations.
"It's hard to change decades-long policies. It's an incredible risk," said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R - Mo.). "But we've got to get rid of the embargo, and we've got to get rid of the travel ban."
"Open trade is our best hope to bring democratic reform to Cuba," said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D - Ark). "It's high time that we lay aside historic grudges. It's high time we begin to become a better friend with our neighbors in Cuba."
Changes May Come Slowly,
"We face enormous obstacles in Congress," Emerson said. "A minority in the House and Senate want to tear down what the majority wants." On the House side, she added, some representatives, including members of the powerful Appropriations Committee, "have a personal problem with letting go of the embargo."
Robert Neal, appropriations associate in the office of Rep. George Nethercutt Jr. (R -- Wash.), predicted only modest near-term changes in U.S. policy. "The general perception is that Congress will probably be able to take some other further steps forward this year, but they will be small steps," Neal said.
Sept. 11 has also increased Capital Hill's degree of difficulty in improving U.S.-Cuba relations, said Brian Moran, senior legislative assistant to Sen. Byron Dorgan (D -- N.D.). "Terrorism has a higher profile since Sept. 11," he explained, and Cuba remains on the U.S. list of countries that allegedly support terrorism. "As long as Cuba is on that list, right or wrong," said Moran, "it will make it difficult for certain members of Congress to vote against the president" on U.S.-Cuba trade issues. Moran predicted "incremental steps to letting business in" to Cuba. A current Senate bill includes a provision to allow private U.S. financing of sales to Cuba, he added.
"In the 107th Congress, 21 bills were introduced that contained elements" for normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations, said Rafael Dausa, director of Cuba's North American Ministry of Foreign Relations.
"Congress," he added, "is asking itself, What is the benefit for the U.S. from this embargo? The answer is clear - nothing. The extreme rightwing of the Cuban-American community has held American policy hostage."
Congress needs to move forward first for Cuba to move forward, de la Nuez contended. "If nothing happens, it's going to be very difficult to move forward," he said. "It's impossible for Cuba only to move. At the same time, we are prepared to complete and provide the same if we see new signs."
Kansas Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer, however, noted, "The policies of Cuba can make it easier or harder" in changing U.S. policy.
Speakers Dispute Cuba's
"We feel very confident with the way in which we manage human rights in our country," said de la Luz. "There is no reason for Cuba to be included on this list."
"Sept. 11 was a turning point in international relations and priorities all over the world," asserted Gustavo Machin, first secretary of the Cuban Interests Section. "Sept. 11 proved that the Cold War is over, and it proved again that Cuba has nothing to do with terrorism." (Cuba's government expressed condolences to the USA after Sept. 11 and officially condemned the terrorists' actions.)
Cuba's political system, however, did come in for some criticism from Sen. Lincoln. While she supported opening up U.S.-Cuba trade, Lincoln also criticized Cuba's "closed and repressive system. . . . It is time for Cuba to give an honest accounting of its policy toward its citizens," she said. "It is time for Cuba to become a more progressive, open society."
(The Cuban delegation reacted to Lincoln's remarks by releasing a statement the following day. They were upset by the senator's comments, the Cubans' statement said, but were determined that they would not allow them to detract from their efforts to strengthen relations with America.)
Former Sen. Paul Simon offered a much milder criticism. "There are some areas [in Cuba] in which I'd like to see changes," he said. "The image of Fidel Castro is not necessarily a plus. But compared to China," Simon added, "Cuba's record on human rights is a lot better." (See accompanying feature, "Open Trade Key to Changing Cuba, Sen. Simon Tells Cancun Conference.")
"We have a system in place and a structure that allows the stability we are looking for," de la Nuez said in a conference session that preceded both Simon and Lincoln's remarks. "In Cuba, as in all countries, you have to make changes. We will do so as long as is necessary."
Lifting Travel Ban
Simon, for example, contended that the current policy tramples "a basic right of U.S. citizens."
Cowal cited polls showing that 67 percent of Americans favor lifting the ban on Cuba travel. In addition, she added, polls show that 70 percent of Floridians - and 53.9 percent of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County - are in favor of lifting the travel ban.
Eliminating the travel ban, Sherrer asserted, could set off a domino reaction in Cuban policy. "Once we knock down the travel barrier, everything else will fall together pretty quickly," he said.
"Lifting the travel ban is one area in which we should be pushing," Simon said. "That has a lot of sex appeal. And to buy from the U.S., Cuba needs capital, which is something that tourism would supply a quick infusion of."
Does 'Thunder of Activity' Augur
The conference's most lasting impression, however, may have been the inkling that even more substantial U.S.-Cuba policy changes could be in the offing.
Jones, for example, noted, "There's a thunder of activity. The next year, the next six months, is the time."
"I believe that our policies on trade and travel are failed policies, and I believe that the overwhelming majority of Kansans and Americans agree with me," Sherrer noted.
The Kansas lieutenant governor added, however, "There's enough blame here to go around. I prefer to think as Thomas Jefferson once said, "I like dreams of the future better than the history of the past." . . . The right question isn't whether we remove these restrictions. The question is when."
The tentative opening of U.S.-Cuba relations "shows how much the economies of each country can help each other," said Pedro Alvarez, director of Alimport, the government-owned food import company. "Imagine what the benefits to both countries could be.
"I cannot help but think of John Lennon: 'You might say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one'."
Continue to related article:
Open Trade Key to Changing Cuba, Sen. Simon Tells Cancun Conference
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