By Jeff Franks | Reuters
Glum U.S. vendors find themselves fewer in number and fading in importance at Havana’s annual international trade fair, a plight they blame on a 44-year-old Cold War trade embargo that they say is handing the Cuban market to other countries.
Of the 50 or so vendors who bothered to show up this week, many sit on plastic chairs in drab booths, looking like they need a pack of cards to pass the time in the absence of serious deal-making.
“Unfortunately, there aren’t that many buyers. Lots of tire kickers but that’s about it,” said Roberto Fernandez of Bunge Shortening and Oils.
Five years ago, after the U.S. Congress allowed agricultural exports to Cuba, there was a separate trade fair just for U.S. companies that drew about 800 vendors.
But at last year’s international trade fair, that dropped to 150 U.S. firms.
This year’s further slide reflects what the vendors said were the President George W. Bush’s efforts to steadily toughen enforcement of the trade embargo that dates back to October 1962, as it tries to pressure one of the world’s last communist states to change.
Sellers complained that the United States under Bush has made trade with Cuba more expensive and imposed financial terms that limit their ability to compete.
While the United States once was the top food supplier to Cuba, figures from the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council issued last week showed that agricultural exports have fallen the past two years, down to $350 million in 2005, and likely less than that this year.
Experts say declining trade is due not just to the embargo, but also Cuban policy changes attempting to create pressure in U.S. farm states to ease U.S. export restrictions and the communist island’s growing economic ties with Venezuela and China.
GATHERED IN LENIN PARK
As the U.S. presence slips, countries from around the globe fill up the rest of the large exhibition center in Lenin Park.
Fair officials said more than 750 companies from 43 countries had been expected to send representatives to the Oct. 30-Nov. 4 fair. The country taking the most exhibition space was China, they said.
On Tuesday, the fair celebrated “Canada Day” to honor a strong Canadian presence.
“Hell, the Canadians, everybody else in the world is here but us. We’re just passing up a market,” said John Measday, a sales manager for Iowa-based West Central Cooperative, which provides corn and soy products.
“I’m a moderate conservative, but I’ve been in sales and marketing all my life and I think the quickest way to bring a country around to our principles and things we believe in is to do more business with them,” he said, puffing on a Cuban cigar.
Florida rancher John Parke Wright said whatever usefulness the trade embargo may have had has passed and now it hurts only U.S. business and the Cuban people.
“This is the longest running mistake in the history of American diplomacy,” Wright said.
Most vendors blamed the survival of the embargo on the large and politically influential anti-Castro Cuban-American population in Miami.
But Measday also said Cuban President Fidel Castro bore much responsibility for the long U.S.-Cuba standoff.
“After he started nationalizing everything, the U.S. had to do something,” Measday said.