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Posted November 25, 2004 by publisher in Cuba-US Trade

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By NED RANDOLPH| Advocate business writer

When economic development Secretary Mike Olivier leads a trade delegation to Cuba next month, he and at least six businesses will be wading through a political brier patch that has guarded the communist nation from U.S. business interests for 40 years.

In fact, no other Louisiana official has led such a trip, which officials announced Tuesday will include Buras Mill & Feed Co. of Bogalusa, a provider of livestock feed; Pilgrim’s Pride, a national frozen poultry seller with two Louisiana plants; Roy O. Martin Lumber Co. of Alexandria, a telephone pole maker; Louisiana Fish, a Metairie-based fish products company; TMG Inc. of Clinton, a producer of cattle feed and feed ingredients; and Ellington Cotton Co. of Winnsboro, which sells textiles.

Such a trade mission is significant because of the monolithic opposition by powerful Cuban exile groups to dictator Fidel Castro, whose communist regime took power in 1959.

The U.S. government forbids unlicensed travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba. Trade was banned outright for four decades, until a 2001 exception was made for farm and health-care products.

Yet a chorus grows by business leaders and politicians for loosening the embargo for humanitarian reasons. States eying Castro’s inevitable demise are also starting to line up for a potential economic bonanza.

“If you roll the clock back, Cuba was the largest trading partner with New Orleans until Castro took over,” said Larry Collins, director of international services for the Department of Economic Development. “There’s a great affinity.”

Cuba would be a natural consumer of Louisiana rice, seafood and other products, economic development officials say.

The companies invited into the delegation represent industries that have been approved by the U.S. government.

“This is a group that’s a manageable size. We wanted to make sure we can help them connect,” Collins said.

Before becoming Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s economic development secretary, Olivier attended several trips to Cuba as the top official of the Harrison County Economic Development Commission in Mississippi.

When he leads the Louisiana delegation there Dec. 14-18, it will mark the first such trip by a Louisiana official, Collins said.

But more trips with business leaders will be planned between December and spring, when Blanco may lead a formal delegation, Olivier also has said.

“Because this is such a controversial issue the ports on their own early on had made trips to Cuba to explore the possibility of opening a trade route,” Collins said.

Engaging with Castro for any reason is just unacceptable for some exiles. They cite Castro’s dismal record of human rights violations and property seizures.

Just recently, in 2003 he jailed dozens of journalists and dissidents in a crackdown on free speech.

“Cuba is feudal state, owned and controlled by one man,” said George Fowler, a Cuban born exile. “You do business in Cuba, you’re doing business with Fidel Castro.”

He said Olivier is wasting taxpayer money on a trade mission, when nations in Central and South America can better use our resources.

Fowler, a lawyer in New Orleans, is a member of the politically powerful Cuban American National Foundation.

“On Dec. 1st, 2nd and 3rd, I’m chairing the Tulane Latin American Law Institute—inviting people from Latin America who we can do business with that aren’t terrorist states,” Fowler said.

The tide of history, however, suggests to many that Cuba will open eventually, and that those who are aggressive now will be poised to capitalize on it.

U.S. trade to Cuba has grown exponentially since 2001, from $2.3 million to $106 million in 2004, from states like Alabama, Florida and Illinois.

Trade is expected to top $133.8 million next year, according to the World Trade Center.

“We are behind the curve for southern states in doing things with Cuba,” Collins said.

Olivier has probably considered the political fallout and decided on the economic advantages of the trip, said World Trade Center managing director Eugene Schreiber.

“His people have told him about the criticism (in Louisiana), and he’s biting the bullet,” Schreiber said. “First of all, Castro is not going to last forever, although it almost seems like he is. When he goes it’s all going to fall.”

He added, “You can’t hold your finger in the dike forever.”

Yet that’s precisely why Olivier should not go, Fowler said.

The Cuban people will resent Louisiana for lining the pockets of Castro, the longest-standing dictator in the world responsible for thousands of political assassinations, Fowler said.

“Forming a relationship now with the people who are empowering Cuba is associating with known terrorists or criminals. I don’t think the Cuban people in and out of Cuba are going to forget it.”

  1. Follow up post #1 added on November 25, 2004 by waldo


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