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Posted September 14, 2004 by publisher in Cuba-US Trade

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By Bruce Edwards | Miami Herald Staff

Vermont’s agriculture secretary has signed a historic $6 million deal with Cuba in a trade mission that included a lengthy meeting with President Fidel Castro.

Cuba has agreed to buy 100 cows, 2,000 bushels of apples and 3,000 metric tons of dried milk from Vermont producers, Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr said Friday during a telephone interview from Havana.

Following lengthy negotiations Wednesday night, Kerr was surprised when Castro paid an unannounced visit that lasted five hours.

“He is a tremendous extemporaneous speaker,” Kerr said. “He is obviously very bright (and) has a grasp of detail that is stunning.”

Kerr said the 78-year-old Cuban leader touched on subjects ranging from trade and education to U.S.-Cuba relations and the ethical dilemma of exporting tobacco products.

“We talked about U.S.-Cuba relations and we both agreed the (U.S. trade) embargo was unfortunate,” said Kerr, who was accompanied by Dr. Gerado Quaassdorff of the Brattleboro-based Holstein Association. “Trade is important for economic prosperity and also important for peace. It’s tough to hate people when you know them.”

However, Kerr said he did not think it appropriate or diplomatic to broach the subject of Cuba’s human rights record, which has been roundly criticized.

When Castro took control of Cuba in 1959, he imposed a political and economic dictatorship. But Kerr said Castro appears to be well aware that Cuba can’t ignore market conditions and the need to adapt.

“President Castro looked at me and said this is not a matter of ideology but a matter of organization and that small countries don’t have resources they can waste . They need to be very organized and very disciplined.”

When the meeting broke up 2 a.m. Thursday, Kerr said, Castro left saying, “‘I don’t want to abuse your time.’”

Kerr added, “I don’t know if the man ever sleeps.”

Kerr said he expects contracts for apples and powdered milk to be signed within the next two weeks with a contract for the 100 heifers concluded in November.

He said Cuba has agreed to buy 50 registered Jerseys and 50 registered Holsteins between 15 months and 18 months old. Citing confidentiality, he declined to disclose what the Cubans have agreed to pay. However, on his trade mission to Cuba in April, Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie estimated that heifers would command $1,200 to $1,800 each.

The value of the 3,000 metric tons of dried milk has been estimated to be in the neighborhood of $6 million. The Cubans, Kerr said, would take delivery of 1,000 metric tons each month; the primary suppliers would be Agri-Mark in Middlebury and the St. Albans Co-op.

While Cuba has a preference for the sweeter Red Delicious apple, and Vermont grows that variety, Kerr is trying to interest the Cubans in buying McIntosh ó the state’s specialty. Kerr said he’ll arrange to send two boxes of McIntoshes to Cuba.

“If the Macs will sell, beautiful. We’ll ship them a couple of containers of those,” Kerr said. “If they won’t, we’ll sell them a couple of containers of Red Delicious.”

Since arriving in Havana on Monday afternoon, Kerr’s activities in the communist country has been nonstop, with lengthy contract negotiations with Alimport, the Cuban government import agency. Those negotiations were interspersed with trips to dairy farms and a biotech center.

Kerr said he was impressed with the way the Cubans ran their farms. He said he felt confident that Vermont’s cows would be well taken care of and adapt to the tropical climate, which is similar to that found in Florida.

The one hurdle to consummating the deal is obtaining a visa so Cuban officials can visit the state to inspect and select the cows for purchase.

Kerr said that given the strained relations between the two countries, the U.S. State Department has dragged its feet issuing visas to Cuba. He said, however, he hopes visas will be issued so Cuban inspectors can visit the state before the end of the year.

If that happens, he said, the cows would be shipped in the spring.

Kerr also said the trade agreements could be a harbinger of things to come because the Cubans want to establish a long-term relationship with Vermont.

“The nice thing about the agreement, both on paper and in our discussions, is they emphasize they want these to be ongoing. In other words, this isn’t a one-time deal,” he said. “When we met with them (Alimport officials) and when we met with President Castro, it was very clear the strategy here is a very economic strategy.”

One potential for export is Vermont’s best-known commodity: maple syrup.

Kerr took 48 small bottles of maple syrup for the Cubans to sample. While maple syrup is unfamiliar to Cubans, he said the reaction from officials there was very positive.

He said Cubans have a sweet tooth and the next step is to ship a variety of grades of syrup to find out which ones they like best. Although it will be expensive in the Cuban economy, Kerr said, maple syrup could find its way into Cuba’s tourist hotels.

The export agreement with Cuba is the first for Vermont since the U.S. imposed a trade and travel embargo on Castro’s Cuba more than 40 years ago. Only in recent years has the U.S. partially lifted the embargo to allow U.S. companies to export food, agricultural products and medical supplies to the island nation of 11 million.

Kerr is scheduled to return to Vermont today, but he said his departure from Cuba may be delayed by Hurricane Ivan.

When he does depart, he’ll take along Cuba’s signature product.

“Fidel Castro gave me a beautiful box of cigars,” Kerr said. “He said (they’re) the best cigars Cuba makes.”

Contact Bruce Edwards at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

  1. Follow up post #1 added on September 14, 2004 by Jesus Perez

    Keep up the good work Mr. Kerr. It is amazing what can happen when you have dialogue on the basis of mutual respect.

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