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Posted November 05, 2003 by publisher in Business In Cuba

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By Mary Murray | NBC NEWS

Trade fair, vote in Assembly underscore Bush’s challenge

HAVANA, Cuba, Nov. 4 —  An unlikely union of U.S. business executives and farmers as well as 179 diplomats from across the globe delivered a double setback this week to President Bush’s push to stiffen the trade embargo on Cuba. The blows weren’t unexpected but underscored the challenges facing the administration in its effort to further isolate the regime of President Fidel Castro.

SOME 70 U.S. companies gathered this week at Havana’s annual trade fair, pushing aside European wine and food vendors to sell Carolina turkeys, Mississippi peanut butter, Tampa onions and Minnesota cattle feed.
    The American presence was down from last year, when 288 exhibitors from 33 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico took part in the food and agricultural exhibitions.
    But deals were to be made by companies that ventured to Havana. Alimport, Cuba’s state food importer, promised to reward “those brave enough to show up.”
    Pedro Alvarez, Alimport CEO, told NBC News he intended to sign contracts with just about every U.S. company here. The deals are expected to total over $50 million, half of all the contracts Alimport expects to sign during the week-long event.
    Then on Tuesday, 179 countries at the U.N. General Assembly voted to condemn the economic embargo for the 12th straight year. Just two lone voices joined the United States in opposing the non-binding resolution Israel and the Marshall Islands. 
      Before the vote, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque described the 42-year-old embargo as “genocide aimed at creating the conditions to provoke hunger and disease.”
    U.S. representative Sichan Siv, for his part, echoed the White House position. “Cuba’s best day is when the Cuban people have terminated Castro’s evil communist dictatorial regime and said to him, Hasta la vista, baby,’” a reference to the oft-quoted line by California Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger from the movie “Terminator.”
    But American horse traders in Havana said they wanted politics kept out of their business.
    “I’m an American businessman and I export capitalism,” said Richard Waltzer, representing a Florida company, Splash Tropical Drinks, which landed a $500,000 contract to supply Cuban hotels with ingredients to make pia coladas and strawberry daiquiris.
    Ralph Kaehler, a Minnesota rancher who supplied dairy cows to Cuba last year, also won a contract for a new cattle feed that should increase milk production. “The embargo started before I was born,” Kaehler said. “Why would you carry a grudge that long?” 
      The USA Rice Federation hopes to boost its 2003 sales to Cuba by the end of the week. To date, the federation said it has sold $16 million of Arkansas and Louisiana rice.
    Marvin Lehrer, the federation’s Latin American representative, hopes to corner even more of the island’s $50 million rice market. “I’m not a politician. I know about rice. Cuba was the largest market for U.S. rice prior to 1960. If there was normalization of trade, it would grow significantly.”
    That seems unlikely. The president recently clamped down on travel to the island and threatened to veto pending legislation to end the long-standing travel restrictions on Cuba.
    After the Senate voted 59 to 36 to stop government enforcement of the travel ban, the White House responded, “It is essential to maintain sanctions and travel restrictions to deny economic resources to the brutal Castro regime.”
    The measure must still pass a conference committee before reaching President Bush’s desk. 
    Some observers believe that Bush’s hard-line position is dictated by the White House’s desire to woo South Florida’s voters in next year’s presidential contest.
    Ironically, there are more Florida companies hawking their products this week in Havana than from any other state.
    They included Cuban-American Enrique Montejo, who has sold Alimport some $2.5 million in spices and condiments over the past year.
    Over the last 36 months, Alimport has spent over half a billion dollars for American products, purchases allowed under a special exemption to the trade ban.
    Alvarez claims that if he could buy and sell freely with the United States, purchases would top $1 billion. That figure would further double, he suggested, if American tourists could vacation in Cuba. 

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